A turn of the wrench

5th Coast Guard District NewsThe heat in the workspace is intense. The noise is overwhelming, and the nose is assaulted by the smell of machinery, oil, old water, and exhaust. The days are long and the work is dirty, but a strong sense of camaraderie is evident among those who do it. This is the world of the Coast Guard machinery technician, one of the largest rates in the service.

With hands covered in oil, engineers work tirelessly on the ships and assets of the Coast Guard.

“In my job (working with the engines and machinery), as dirty and grimy as it is, it’s the part I like the best,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Wiedenfeld, a machinery technician aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa. “I like to turn a wrench. I like to get dirty. I like to put my blood, sweat, and tears into a job.”

During basic training, recruits choose a direction for their career. Those interested in the more mechanical aspects of the Coast Guard may be assigned as non-rated firemen.

Newly graduated recruits are then sent to Coast Guard cutters, small boat units and shore stations.

At small boat stations the new firemen integrate with the qualified crew, primarily working with the machinery technicians, or MKs as they are called, cleaning filters, bilges, and the other mechanical tasks at their unit.

For example, Wiedenfeld started as a fireman at Coast Guard Station Umpqua River, a surf station in Winchester Bay, Ore.

“One of my duties was to maintain the dewatering pumps at the station. I was also in charge of all the maintenance for the air compressors and the emergency diesel generator behind the station.”

Coast Guard dewatering pumps are packed into water tight barrels and taken along on Coast Guard assets. They are primarily used in emergency situations and are passed over to vessels that are flooding or taking on water.

The typical fireman’s duty at a small boat station includes being a qualified crewman for the unit’s small boats, a qualified watchstander in the communications room, and often a qualified boarding team member for any law enforcement activity.
Aboard a cutter, the firemen’s jobs are a little more defined then those at a small boat station. They start off by drawing or sketching schematics of the inner workings of the ship, familiarizing themselves with the machinery, then work primarily in the engine rooms to become qualified as an engineer of the watch.

“The watchstanding is the key,” said Chief Warrant Officer Sean Martinez, engineer in charge of the main propulsion division aboard the Tampa. “The watchstanders monitor the different pressures and temperatures; they are the first line of defense if anything goes wrong.”

After some time waiting for training aboard a cutter or a shore unit, a prospective machinery technician then heads to the Coast Guard’s MK training school, known as class “A” School, in Yorktown, Va. There they develop a foundation of skills needed for their career.

“It is basically 13 weeks of class,” said Wiedenfeld. “Every week is a new subject that we learn about. Except ICE, the internal combustion engine, which is a two week course, where we tear apart a Detroit Diesel 6V92 TA Engine.”

While at school, the students acquire a large knowledge base in all areas of machinery operation and maintenance, from the internal combustion engine to environmental support systems, hydraulics, basic electricity and hazardous material recovery and control.

The students are not only trained as technicians, but also as future managers and leaders in the Coast Guard, since machinery technicians who advance in their career will receive more responsibility. A petty officer third class can start by overseeing one or two of the lower ranked enlisted members, to later supervising an entire shop once they eventually make chief petty officer.

Engineers work to keep the cutter fleet and small-boats operational, in particular the 270-foot medium endurance cutters that are pushing three decades of service.

“All maintenance is hour based,” said Martinez. “After a 20-60 day patrol, we have a laundry list of maintenance that needs to be done, so the captain has a reliable cutter for the crew to take out.”

The newer Coast Guard cutters being inherited by the next generation of Coast Guard engineers is a welcome blessing according to Martinez.

“With the newer cutters, everything seems easier for the engineers to work on. Everything is easier to get to. From an engineering standpoint, it is a marked improvement.”

While the cutter engineer’s domain is within the hull of the ship, some engineers opt for collateral duties, such as Wiedenfeld, the only qualified pursuit crew engineer aboard the Tampa. It is a task that often has him deployed with the cutter’s launchable pursuit craft, chasing down drug smugglers or performing alien migrant interception on the open ocean.

“Law enforcement is another side of the Coast Guard that I enjoy,” said Wiedenfeld. “By using some of my previous qualifications from the small boat station, it helped jump start my position as a small boat engineer and boarding team member.”

The Coast Guard machinery technician rate is a job that is both physically demanding and vital for the safe operation of the Coast Guard’s assets. Without the engineer’s hard work, the units and cutters of the Coast Guard would grind to a halt.

“You can learn a lot as an engineer,” said Wiedenfeld. “You have the option to go to any type of unit the Coast Guard has to offer. The educational limits of what you can excel to is nearly limitless as an engineer.”

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