I recall my first time dealing with a USCG Regional Exam Center (REC) regarding my maritime documents. Returning from my first vessel after completing the entry-level trainee program at the Paul Hall Center (Piney Point, MD), I had been sailing with a temporary Merchant Mariner Document (MMD). This crude document was simply a half of sheet of paper with my photo pasted and thumbprint stamped upon it. With a validity period of only one year, I was to submit this with my lifeboat certification letter and proof of 90 days of sea service to receive my “hard-card”, which was the full size laminated MMD (over-sized to fit in a standard wallet).
This transaction was still free of charge at the time, and I remember many seasoned mariners squabbling about the looming change which would force mariners to pay user fees for this service.
My first step had been to call the USCG Regional Examination Center and request the proper forms to be mailed to me. Once in hand, I filled out the application and sent it via certified mail to the Toledo REC with the supporting documents. Weeks had passed by with no knowledge of my application status, when eventually I received a letter stating that I improperly filled out the forms by marking an “X’ in some boxes instead of initialing. After the correction and resubmission of my application, several more days passed by before I finally had my document in hand. During this process, I had no luck reaching a live person by phone to ask questions.
When I examined my new document, I noticed a five year expiration date. I recall hearing the old-timers at the union hall grumbling about how all MMD’s previously issued without an expiration date would someday require renewing.
As the years unfolded, I began to see that these and other changes in the documentation and licensing regulations were not merely speed bumps, but the actual reconstruction of a system in dire need of an overhaul.
Today, the USCG National Maritime Center (NMC) and the Regional Exam Centers provide a level of service that was unimaginable twenty years ago. It is now actually possible to renew your documents without leaving the comfort of your own home. However, most mariners unfortunately do not realize the variety of options available to them in regards to renewing or upgrading documents. To point out a few:
* Download all forms from the NMC website. Application and medical forms now have a “fill-in” form which allows you to produce a neat, typed application, thus eliminating the risk of problems caused by sloppy handwriting.
* Original documents (certificates, discharges, etc.) are no longer needed. Copies are now accepted.
* No longer must you submit photos or appear in-person to be fingerprinted. The USCG is able to pull this information from the TWIC database.
* Payments can be made on line at www.pay.gov, or by credit card or personal check at the REC. (Cash and money orders are no longer accepted.) When paying on-line, you may pay for all phases (application, testing, issuance) or just one or two phases at a time.
* You may check on the status of your application on-line. Go to the website homeport.USCG mil and follow the link for Merchant Mariners to “Merchant Marine Application Status”. By entering either your Mariner Number and Application Number or the last 4 digits of you SS# combined with your birth date information, you can retrieve your status.
* For timely customer service and assistance, the phone number for contacting the National Maritime Center is (888) 427-5662. You can usually reach an representative with little waiting. To contact the NMC via email, use IASKNMC@uscg.mil.
* Regional Exam Centers now accept applications by email. The application must be in .PDF format and not exceed 10 MB in size. See the NMC website for complete details regarding email submissions.
* For those wishing to submit an application in person, you may schedule an appointment online. After scheduling an appointment in this manner, you will be provided an appointment receipt to print out, and will receive by email an appointment reminder as your date get closer. In addition, the web page for making REC appointments also provides postings of events or closings which may affect your pending trip to the REC, and includes parking information and a link to local weather.
* Mariners can choose to stay informed of ongoing developments and changes by accessing the website: http://cgls.uscg.mil/groups.php?ID=10 (linked to from the NMC homepage). Here you may sign up to receive alerts via email for any or all of these topics: NMC updates, NMC performance reports, mariner licensing and documentation policy updates, REC news & announcements, mariner information & news, USCG approved courses, and merchant marine medical topics.
* The NMC website has an online survey in which you can rate your service from a REC or the NMC. You can complete a survey to rate any step of the process (application, testing, issuance, etc).
* The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) has a website designed for those who voluntarily submit information which may be used to contact mariners in the event of a surge in sealift needs. Once you sign-up and create a user name and password, you will be able to log on and view your endorsements and sea service history. The website is Mariner’s Outreach Program.
For the first time in years, mariners may finally enjoy a stable set of credentialing regulations without fearing what lurks around the next bend. However, the current variety of services did not come overnight. Following is a timeline of notable changes which led to the modern system in use:
|1993 (April 15)||USCG begins charging user fees for MMD and license transactions|
|1994 (July)||USCG revises MMD into smaller wallet size card|
|1994 (July 7)||Seamen applying for entry level or original MMD no longer need proof of an employment commitment from a shipping company, ending a 57-year-old regulation|
|1995||IMO makes amendments to the 1978 STCW regulations|
|1995 (September)||USCG begins issuing STCW certificates (CG-5601) to comply with the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers|
|1996 (October)||Revised STCW certificate (CG-5611) complies with 1995 amendments to 1978 convention; also includes photo|
|1997 (February 1)||Some STCW components of come into effect (enforcement beginning on 7-28-1999), including Basic Safety Training (BST)|
|1997||USCG approves the first “Training Record Book” (created by the Paul Hall Center) to document the training history of a mariner|
|1998 (August 1)||ll mariners starting service on this date are subject to STCW licensing regulations (can no longer obtain an ocean or coastwise license solely based on previous regulations)|
|1999 (February 1)||Deadline for GMDSS compliance (FCC)|
|2002 (January)||USCG revises medical form CG-719K (last revised in 1987)|
|2002 (February 1)||1995 Amended STCW regulations come into full effect|
|2002 (August 1)||USCG begins strict enforcement of STCW following 6 month grace period|
|2002||USCG redesigns the appearance of licenses to produce a more modern look|
|2002 (September)||USCG modifies the existing MMD card to include a serial number and more tamper resistant elements. Also, mariners must now appear in person at a REC to verify identity and provide fingerprints|
|2003 (February)||USCG placed under Department of Homeland Security (from Department of Transportation)|
|2004 (March)||USCG revises form CG-719B (MMD & license application)|
|2004 (November)||Pilot program begins in certain ports to test early version of Transportation Worker’s Identification Credential (TWIC)|
|2005 (August)||USCG revises STCW certificate with enhanced anti-fraud features|
|2006 (May)||TSA & USCG unveil plans to implement the TWIC program|
|2006 (August)||New Orleans REC becomes the first REC to transition to the NMC|
|2007 (May)||On-line status available for Merchant Mariner Applications|
|2008 (January 7)||NMC (formerly located in Arlington, VA) opens in Martinsburg, WV in a newly constructed building|
|2008 (September 25)||Original TWIC deadline|
|2009 (April 15)||Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) regulations come into effect, meaning all newly issued credentials will combine the STCW certificate, MMD & license into this new document. Also, mariners no longer must appear in person at REC, photo/fingerprints are taken from TWIC database, revised user fees, etc. Final deadline for TWIC compliance|
|2009 (May 7)||First MMC issued|
|2010 (January 1)||All mariners must comply with new medical guidelines, using revised CG-719K|
|2010 (January 4)||Regional Exam Centers begin to accept MMC applications via email|