RE-IMAGINGING THE U.S.C.G. AUXILIARY
The pandemic of 2020-21 has hit the Auxiliary very
hard. This new reality has exposed how
“non-essential” many of our routine activities really are and the organization
is hemorrhaging members. COVID-19 may
have become the tipping point for an organization already capsizing in an
archaic and incredibly bureaucratic vessel.
These observations are based, in part, on a
thirty-year volunteer career with the U.S.A.F. Auxiliary (Civil Air Patrol) before
coming to the maritime world, seven years ago.
The C.A.P. has its own issues, but it also offers some insights into
better practices for volunteer agencies.
Our much diminished operational tempo may, however,
offer the opportunity to stand back and ask an intriguing question: “If we were just now inventing a U.S.C.G.
Auxiliary, what would that ideal organization for the 21st century
look like?” Imagine being able to cut
the anchor lines on those policies and procedures that have their roots in
decades long past. Imagine a new force
multiplier with a revamped mission package, streamlined administration, empowered
leadership, and a revitalized esprit de corps.
Hopefully, the thoughts which follow will stimulate the organization’s
Revamping the Mission.
As our active duty Coast Guard is taking on increasing
international responsibilities, its limited resources are strained. At the same time, the Auxiliary is lacking
that highly visible mission that is its sole responsibility and which its
members, and the general public, recognize as vital.
The U.S.A.F. Auxiliary (C.A.P.) performs almost all
inland Search and Rescue (SAR) operations.
It’s volunteer officers occupy all on-scene incident command positions
as well as staffing the air and ground teams responding to the event. In support of that approach, the Air Force
long ago abandoned the use of privately owned aircraft and vehicles to conduct
SAR. They now provide standardized
aircraft and vehicles to each state, based on their activity levels.
In contrast, the active duty Coast Guard has the best
resources to conduct SAR offshore and active duty personnel fill all incident
command positions. If we are honest,
we’d have to say that the Auxiliary’s privately owned aircraft and vessels are
of marginal utility in that environment.
Our ICS training is rarely put into practice.
Now, what if the Auxiliary were given the primary
responsibility to train for, and then prosecute, all “Shallow Water SAR”? This would include bays, harbors, the ICW,
rivers, lakes, and areas experiencing unusual coastal flooding. Coastal flooding is likely to be an
increasing issue in the coming years. Wouldn’t
it be better to have a well-trained, properly equipped Auxiliary force respond
rather than impromptu organizations like the “Cajun Navy”? This would mean training Auxiliary officers
to hold all the key incident command positions for on-scene response and it
would require furnishing the Auxiliary with boats specifically (1) designed to navigate
the coastal flooding environment where dangerous objects may be lurking just
below the surface and (2) equipped to pluck people from those dangerous waters
and treat them until removed to safety.
This would provide the Auxiliary with a high-profile,
high-visibility mission to call its own.
In disaster relief operations, the Auxiliary could become as recognized
and as welcome as the Red Cross, bringing great credit to the U. S. Coast Guard
in the process, and dispelling the image of the Auxiliary as a “Good ol’ Boys
For shallow-water operations requiring air support,
the Coast Guard could develop a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S.A.F to
employ C.A.P. assets with USCG Auxiliarist crew aboard, or it could remove
current restrictions and let the Auxiliary develop its own cadre of
well-trained drone pilots.
Implementing Membership Options.
The Auxiliary has long suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Is it a military organization or is it
not? The rank insignia we wear fails to
denote our experience level and the military courtesies normally associated
with rank are waived.
People drawn to the
Auxiliary are a mixture of folks who thrive in the military environment and
those who struggle with it. Why not
accommodate both? Members whose primary
interest is in supporting recreational boating safety programs like public education,
vessel examination, program visitation or in helping with flotilla administration
could enjoy a base level of membership.
Their “uniform” would be boat shoes, khaki slacks, and a blue polo shirt
with the Auxiliary logo. Their
application would be 2 pages (vs. 15) and their ID Card would not be accepted for
access to USCG installations.
Members wishing to
participate in activities that more directly support the U. S. Coast Guard like
Watchstanding, Food Service, Public Relations, Maritime Observation patrols or
Shallow-water SAR, and members aspiring to positions of authority, would be initiated
into a second tier of membership. Their
uniforms would be the ODU and short-sleeve Blues. These folks would be expected to comply with
Auxiliary appearance standards and practice all military customs and
courtesies. They would carry a photo ID
and their rank would indicate their level of accomplishment in the Auxiliary,
not the position held. Minimum physical
fitness standards might also be applied to some operational specialties.
The Auxiliary should
also accommodate those loyal members who, for whatever reason, can no longer
actively participate. A “Sustaining
Member” would be someone who supports the organization by paying their annual
dues, but who is not required to maintain currency and does not count when
analyzing unit performance metrics.
Empowering Our Front-Line Leadership.
Many of the leaders who emerge at the Flotilla and
Division levels come to the Auxiliary after long careers in the private sector
or in government. They have seen the
good, the bad, and the ugly, and honed their own leadership styles
accordingly. The USCG should liberally
accept any applicable training accomplished outside the USCG world instead of treating
them like they are fresh out of college with blank resume’s. This means re-evaluating how leadership is
taught in the Auxiliary, especially the current spreadsheet of 28 leadership
traits that fails as a substitute for the art of leadership). Amazingly, the Auxiliary offers no leadership
training in the one area that is essential -- leading and managing an
organization of volunteers. FEMA has
such a course, and it should be required of all Auxiliary officers and any
active duty folks who liaison with the Auxiliary. Volunteers have work expectations and
motivations quite different from paid personnel.
A volunteer most definitely does not join an
organization like the USCG Auxiliary to be confronted with the same (or worse)
bureaucratic hurdles they faced in their paying jobs. Because the Coast Guard has so little faith
in its Auxiliary leaders, it forces most decisions to go through a multi-layer
Chain of Leadership and Command before arriving on the desk of an active duty
member of the Coast Guard who is overwhelmed with relatively minor decisions. Personnel actions that should take a week
have dragged on for almost a year as paperwork is misplaced or ignored, and the
originator is kept in the dark about its status. The Coast Guard needs to turn this model on
its head and delegate all routine personnel actions to the Division or Flotilla
level – the level where the individual’s knowledge and experience are actually
Re-inventing our Administrative
Some level of regulatory documentation is, of course,
necessary to the maintenance of good order and discipline. The Auxiliary, however, has amassed thousands
of pages of detailed regulations since its inception, filled with subtle
conflicts and layers of obfuscation. To
accompany this doctrine, there is a catalogue of complex forms to support an
arcane system of reporting member activity and accomplishment.
At some point, you have
to stop pouring time and money into repairing the old klunker
(AuxData II is the latest
example) and acquire a sleek new vehicle.
That is where the Auxiliary finds itself.
The way in which management information flows
up, down and laterally within the Auxiliary needs to be re-imagined.
And in terms of forms and regulations, the
KISS principle must become our watchword.
Keep it Short and Simple as we start anew.
I’m sure these measures sound drastic, but the present
trajectory of the USCG Auxiliary is not sustainable in the 21st
century. The short-term pain of re-birth seems better
to me than the agony of a prolonged demise.