The smallest of the nation’s seven uniformed armed services, the United States Coast Guard is dedicated to safety and security at sea and in port. The Coast Guard was a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation until 2003, when it became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The Coast Guard’s basic missions relate to maritime safety, mobility, and security; national defense, and natural resources protection. It is responsible for homeland security such as coastal patrols, harbor defense, and port security; enforcement of maritime laws and treaties and customs and revenues laws; inspection of cargo ships for safety and smuggling; naval search and rescue; marine environmental pollution response; and the maintenance of coastal and offshore weather stations and navigational aids such as beacons and buoys. In addition, the Coast Guard has served in every major U.S. war. In wartime, the Coast Guard operates as a service in the U.S. Navy.
Marine Science Technicians
The Coast Guard offers many career opportunities for enlisted personnel, including boatswain’s mate, aviation maintenance technician, electronics technician, and many others, including marine science technician (MST).
"The Coast Guard offers many career opportunities for enlisted personnel, including boatswain’s mate, aviation maintenance technician, electronics technician, and many others, including marine science technician (MST)"
According to David Forcucci, civilian oceanographic liaison officer, MSTs conduct marine-safety activities such as investigating pollution incidents and monitoring pollution cleanups; boarding foreign vessels to enforce pollution and navigation safety laws; patrolling harbors for port safety and security; and inspecting waterfront facilities. Possible scientific duties include responding to oil and hazardous-material spills, observing and forecasting weather.
“Some incoming MSTs already have two- or four-year degrees, but many do not,” says Forcucci. “I’ve met MSTs who were chemical engineers as civilians before they enlisted, but at the same time, many MSTs do not have an advanced degree.”
Students interested in becoming a Coast Guard MST are required to earn a satisfactory score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test. They must have an aptitude for math and science, strong attention to detail, and the ability to understand federal laws and regulations. “Course work or experience in environmental sciences is useful for an MST,” says Forcucci. “Knowledge of algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, and physics is also very helpful.
"MSTs lucky enough to be assigned to the icebreaking fleet receive advanced training in meteorology and oceanography so that they can provide support to scientists"
After enlisting, MSTs attend an eight-week training program in Yorktown, Virginia, where they learn the basic skills needed to conduct investigations, monitor pollution removal, and conduct safety boardings on cargo vessels. Forcucci says that additional training is available for specific areas such as satellite imagery analysis and weather forecasting.
Science in the Ice
Besides security and safety, the Coast Guard is also committed to scientific research. Forcucci works in scientific research for the Coast Guard’s on Polar-class icebreakers, heavy-duty Coast Guard cutters that are designed to conduct Arctic and Antarctic research. The Healy, Polar Star, and Polar Sea are designed to enhance open-water icebreaking with features such as reinforced hulls, special icebreaking bows, and a system that allows rapid shifting of ballast to increase the effectiveness of their icebreaking.
Each year, a few MSTs are selected to work onboard the icebreakers, whose home port is Seattle, Washington. Forcucci says that right now, the Healy is the only active icebreaker—the two Polars are undergoing repairs. “The Healy is a fairly new cutter, unlike the two Polars,” he explains. “Also, the two Polars support short Antarctic missions, while the Healy is dedicated to scientific research in the Arctic region. Because it’s a dedicated research vessel, most of its missions are at least six months long.”
MSTs lucky enough to be assigned to the icebreaking fleet receive advanced training in meteorology and oceanography so that they can provide support to scientists. And because the icebreakers are also part of the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet, Coast Guard MSTs may have the opportunity to participate in on-the-job training on one of the various UNOLS research vessels.
The Healy is designed for a wide range of research activities. It has more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and accommodations for up to 50 scientists. This past summer’s NOAA-sponsored expedition is an example of a typical research cruise. Scientists aboard the Healy examined and collected Arctic life forms with the aid of divers, photographic platforms, and an ROV designed to work under ice. They also used traditional techniques such as ice coring, plankton nets, and bottom trawls.
Science support activities for an MST onboard an icebreaker might include reporting weather conditions to the National Weather Service, recording sea ice conditions, reporting sightings of marine mammals to NOAA and helping to collect ocean samples and data. Forcucci says that a lot of boatswain work is required by MSTs onboard the Healy. “MSTs support the scientists by running the crane, helping with deck work, and running the winches,” he says. “Basic boating skills are important.”
Expect the Unexpected
What kind of personality traits make a successful Healy MST? Forcucci says that it’s obviously a job for those who like adventure. “Most of the MSTs on the Healy are very energetic and excited about being at sea,” he continues. “They’re very enthusiastic about the mission of the ship.”
MSTs serving on the Healy must also learn to expect the unexpected. On last summer’s research cruise, the Healy was briefly stuck between two ice floes. And the crew spotted a polar bear mother and her cub. “When you work in the Arctic, you never run out of interesting stories to tell!” says Forcucci.
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