Indigenous knowledge: Coast Guard civilians play vital role in command center

d7Photos and story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley J. Johnson

There is a buzz about the room. A white board displays four pending search-and-rescue cases. Radio chatter, computer humming and constant phone calls leave just enough air space for the serious, sometimes life-or-death, decisions made every day at the command center at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Florida. The men and women responsible for these decisions are mostly dressed in blue Coast Guard uniforms. However, for three men, their uniforms are collared shirts, khakis and jeans.

Kevin T. Coyne, Richard Hutchinson and Jason E. Morris are civilian federal employees. All three men are prior active-duty Coast Guard members. Working alongside reserve and active-duty military members, they are currently part of the 7,000 plus civilian workforce. Combined, they have more than 90 years experience working with and in command centers; they provide valuable knowledge and expertise.

Robert Hutchinson and Kevin T. Coyne, search and rescue coordinators at Sector St. Petersburg, Fla., create a search plan at the sector, Dec. 17, 2014.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley Johnson)

Robert Hutchinson and Kevin T. Coyne, search and rescue coordinators at Sector St. Petersburg, Fla., create a search plan at the sector, Dec. 17, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ashley Johnson)

Through broad windows the command center looks out over the Tampa Bay. Yet, visible is only a small portion of the more than 460 miles of Florida coast the men are responsible for.

“In our area of responsibility especially, they are heaven sent,” said Senior Chief Raymond W. Burke, the command center chief.

Most active-duty Coast Guard members transfer every four years. Since the men are now civilians, they no longer have to move from duty station to duty station. Burke said the men bring continuity to the command center.

“They have indigenous knowledge,” said Burke. “They are local. They know the people. They know the area.”

Local knowledge and continuity played a large role in one case when a kayaker went missing. Burke said he remembers working on the case with Hutchinson, a command duty officer in the command center, responsible for search-and-rescue mission coordination. Tapping into his vast knowledge, Hutchinson told Burke to use the local kayak map to search aquatic trails. Burke said he never could have fathomed a kayak map existed.

Hutchinson said he has worked over 10,000 search-and-rescue cases. Working in tandem, the men bring maturity, expertise and experience to each case.

“The Coast Guard is very smart to do what they did to hire civilians,” said Hutchinson. “It’s a win-win for the Coast Guard effort.”

Executing the missions coordinated by the command duty officer, Coyne said he enjoys providing aid to those in need of emergency assistance.

“I can use my knowledge and experience to help,” said Coyne. “Help the Coast Guard in the most efficient way.”

Jason E. Morris, a search and rescue coordinator at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Fla., coordinates a search and rescue case in the command center at the sector, Jan. 22, 2015. Morris works alongside reserve and active-duty military members as a part of the more than 7,000 Coast Guard civilian workforce. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Crystallyn A. Kneen)

Jason E. Morris, a search and rescue coordinator at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, Fla., coordinates a search and rescue case in the command center at the sector, Jan. 22, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Crystallyn A. Kneen)

The expertise of the civilian men doesn’t stop at the command center, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan R. Wheatley, an operations

He said he knows he can go to any of his colleagues for career and personal advice.specialist there.

“If you have a question or something new pops up, you can bounce it off them,” said Wheatley. “Over the years, they have stood the watch. They may have seen a situation before or know of someone who has.”

As the phones continue to ring and the radio chatter becomes more urgent, Hutchinson and Coyne configure a search pattern. One points to dots on a computer screen as he narrates scenarios. Coyne directs his mouse to manipulate an area where a Coast Guard aircraft might look for a person in the water. The watchstanders are experts in the technology relied upon to save countless lives. Hutchinson said they are trained in the same way that their active-duty counterparts are. They take the same courses and have the same mandated training. The biggest difference however, is their local knowledge, years of experience and khakis.

“They are part of the team,” said Burke. “When they speak we listen.”

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