The wrench revolution: R-MATs poised to change how reserve engineering ratings train

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Emaia Rise and Chief Petty Officer John D. Miller

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Davis, a reserve machinery technician assembles cement molds for buoy anchors at the Naval Engineering Department at U.S. Coast Guard Base Portsmouth on Sunday, April 17, 2016. Davis, a member of the new Reserve Maintenance Assistance Team, says the new concept allows him to get hands-on experience as far as my rating. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Chiara Sinclair.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Davis, a reserve machinery technician assembles cement molds for buoy anchors at the Naval Engineering Department at U.S. Coast Guard Base Portsmouth on Sunday, April 17, 2016. Davis, a member of the new Reserve Maintenance Assistance Team, says the new concept allows him to get hands-on experience as far as my rating. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Chiara Sinclair.

This post originally appeared in Reservist Magazine

Servicewide exam questions on the history of the Coast Guard Reserve typically address the heroic moments in the component’s 75-year history: Dates of wartime mobilizations, number of personnel recalled for oil spills, names of flooded rivers.

But the last three-quarters of a century has also had record of less dramatic moments: An equally but quietly successful story of workforce evolution so reservists are ready to make that testable history. Reserve units have been formed and disbanded, for example, and ratings have been added in support of new initiatives.

This year’s reserve diamond jubilee coincides with another noteworthy internal change, this time for its engineering departments. Following a successful pilot program, new Reserve Maintenance Assist Teams (R-MAT) will soon work as part of active duty Coast Guard Naval Engineering Departments (NED). Reserve machinery technicians, damage controlmen, and electrician’s mates will be assigned to these teams to better develop their skills, their careers and the reserve’s ability to respond to daily challenges and historic moments.

The R-MAT was a product of a 2014 occupational analysis of the machinery technician rating and a by-product of the boat forces reserve management plan. The findings revealed a gap in the training of the reserve’s engineering workforce. Most personnel were not afforded the opportunity to work on multiple platforms, the knowledge of which was necessary to advance and to maintain the skills needed in case of mobilization.

“Prior to this, on drill weekends we weren’t doing what the active duty” usually did during their workday, says Petty Officer 1st Class Phil Prisco, a damage controlman and one of the first personnel assigned to the R-MAT pilot at Base Portsmouth, Virginia, in November 2014.

“We did it to ourselves” over time, acknowledges Capt. Jennifer Grzelak-Ledoux of the inadvertent training bottleneck, which she explains was an unexpected product of new platforms and limited accessibility to them on drill weekends. Capt. Grzelak-Ledoux and her team worked very closely with Cmdr. Travis Rasmussen of Surface Fleet Logistics Center (SFLC), and Base Portsmouth (Cmdr. Loring Small and Chief Petty Officer William Boyle) to develop the R-MAT Concept of Operations (CONOP) and build the ideal billet construct. The R-MAT CONOP created an opportunity to improve how the Reserve Component’s engineering workforce trains.

A handful of Reserve MK, DC, and EM billets were re-programmed to develop a team whose skills and structure paralleled the active duty Maintenance Augmentation Teams that are already part of the NEDs, says Chief Petty Officer Bill Boyle, who collaborated with Grzelak-Ledoux to help stand up Base Portsmouth’s R-MAT. Like their active duty counterparts, the members of the R-MAT can be deployed individually or in skill-specific teams to wherever a cutter may be experiencing an engineering casualty. Moreover, in the event of a natural disaster or other crisis, R-MAT members could potentially deploy as a group.

But the comparative advantage of the R-MAT concept, especially for its members, is already experienced every month versus in the hypothetical future. Namely, every drill weekend, MKs, DCs, and EMs are doing hands-on, rating-specific repairs and maintenance needed to expand and to maintain their own skills.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jamie Hudson, an electrician's mate, and Petty Officer 1st Class Phil Prisco, a damage controlman, build a paint booth at the Naval Engineering Department at U.S. Coast Guard Base Portsmouth on Sunday, April 17, 2016. Reserve electrician's mates, damage controlmen and machinery technicians were assigned to pilot a new Reserve Maintenance Assistance Team in 2014 to ensure their skills matched those of their active duty counterparts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Chiara Sinclair.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Jamie Hudson, an electrician’s mate, and Petty Officer 1st Class Phil Prisco, a damage controlman, build a paint booth at the Naval Engineering Department at U.S. Coast Guard Base Portsmouth on Sunday, April 17, 2016. Reserve electrician’s mates, damage controlmen and machinery technicians were assigned to pilot a new Reserve Maintenance Assistance Team in 2014 to ensure their skills matched those of their active duty counterparts. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Chiara Sinclair.

One April morning at Base Portsmouth, for instance, the dozen current members of the R-MAT are spread across its engineering shops, ATON yards and piers. A handful of DCs are building a paint booth. An MK is assembling the square steel molds to pour concrete sinkers used to hold buoys in place. Other MKs are performing preventative maintenance on the Coast Guard Cutter Legare. Chief Petty Officer Sheldon Harley and Petty Officer 1st Class Greg Domaleski have their heads wedged under seats in a Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) small boat as they re-assemble it following an overhaul.

“Every weekend is a different experience,” said Harley once the seat he was working on was secured to the response boat’s deck. “We worked on a cutter last month, this MSRT boat this month, maybe a cutter again next month. For a reservist, the chance to work on a cutter is rare, so that’s pretty exciting.”

As Harley suggests, the R-MAT is benefitting its members’ morale as well their skills.

“When we’re doing important stuff, there is more incentive to drill,” explains Prisco, who adds that some of these new billets are also being assigned competencies that enable or require “C” school attendance. He and Harley anticipate that the availability of “C” schools and the new on-the-job training may facilitate advancement, including better scores on exams.

The belief in the R-MAT’s value is also shared by those who work full-time in Base Portsmouth’s engineering shops. Before each drill, civilian employees and active duty members prioritize the R-MAT’s tasking, get out the needed tools to save time, and provide any guidance. Sometimes that’s all that is necessary.

“We’ll explain first what needs to be done, then they just go to town,” says Tony Johnson, a retired U.S. Navy damage controlman and now a boat builder at the Industrial Boat Shop at Base Portsmouth. Standing next to the MSRT boat, which must be delivered in the next five days, Johnson gives a thumb’s up as he touts the value of the R-MAT. “It helps out a lot having them here—they really speed up the process. We’d be scrambling if they weren’t helping out.”

Since standing up the R-MAT, Boyle has seen the team grow as word spreads that MKs, DCs, and EMs are doing the tasks they went to “A” school to learn. Now members of those ratings are coming to him to learn more about the pilot, which Boyle says is a sign that the concept is “getting interest” at the deckplate level. A similar pilot program was stood up at Base Boston with similar results. Following the necessary approval, Boyle anticipates adding 10 to 12 billets at the Portsmouth R-MAT. And success is breeding emulation elsewhere, as R-MATs will soon be rolled out at Bases Alameda, Charleston, Honolulu and Miami.

Each boat seat installed or concrete mold assembled by an R-MAT member will itself likely be unmemorable. But these mundane moments quietly signify another positive milestone in the 75-year evolution of the training of the reserve workforce; a success allowing reservists to remain always nimble and always adequately prepared to respond when history calls.

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