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Old salts on contract help fill experience gaps

Sep. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors assigned to the cruiser Chancellorsville heave lines during a refueling at sea. The ship has used engineering readiness assessment teams, the old salts who travel to ship sand teach gear maintenance.
Sailors assigned to the cruiser Chancellorsville heave lines during a refueling at sea. The ship has used engineering readiness assessment teams, the old salts who travel to ship sand teach gear maintenance. (MC2 Dylan McCord/Navy)
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They’re the snipe’s best friend, and they’re here to stay.

The surface Navy is looking to continue its use of engineering readiness assessment teams, packs of retired master chiefs and warrants that travel ship to ship teaching sailors how to maintain their gear.

“I feel like they are coaches,” said Gas Turbine Systems Technician 3rd Class Adam Hickey, an engineer on cruiser Chancellorsville who said ERAT members had helped him with his in-rate knowledge and ability to troubleshoot gear. “They’re so willing to lend a hand.”

Since its inception four years ago, these teams have been a popular and vital element of the fleet’s “Back to the Basics” campaign and one that officials believe has raised the shipboard readiness, one maintenance man at a time.

The teams have proven very popular with sailors and commanding officers, and so what began in the Pacific Fleet with one team has now expanded to five teams that specialize in different ships: a “diesel team” for diesel-powered amphibious ships, a “steam team” for big deck gators, a minesweeper team and two gas turbine teams for cruisers and destroyers. Similarly, there are four teams for Atlantic-based ships.

The teams are there to teach maintenance side-by-side with junior engineers and their presence has other benefits.

“By them being on the deck plates, teaching the maintenance procedures, [they can] often help them identify material discrepancies on the ships and then have the wisdom and insight on what a repair path might be,” said Capt. Mark Johnson, a former ship CO who oversees ERAT assignments for Naval Surface Force Pacific.

Five- to seven-person contractor teams typically visit ships that are finishing their dry dock periods to train new sailors and reignite the plant’s readiness, work that once was done by chiefs and officers. But cuts to shipboard manning and the training pipeline have left chiefs and seasoned petty officers less able to train up bluejackets, said Johnson, who called ERAT a “stopgap measure” to boost sailor know-how until these issues were fixed.

“Although we’d like our khaki to be able to do that non-stop every day, the reality is there’s a lot of competing events that draw our khaki away from doing that dedicated training every day,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “And these folks can come in with no other responsibilities other than to train, and that’s what they do. One-on-one with the person on the deck plate.”

Johnson added, “You can’t match that with the current manning on our ships.”

The current contract is held by defense firm CACI International, whose spokesperson said they were unable to make an ERAT member available for an interview. Interview requests to subcontractors were also referred to CACI.

Not surprisingly, the engineering teams are in high demand.

“I have just a handful of chiefs,” said Capt. Andrew Hesser, the CO of cruiser Chancellorsville. “They don’t have the time to spend one-on-one with the deck-plate sailor, providing them individual instruction to the degree that these ERAT guys can do.” Hesser, who had ERAT members aboard his cruiser as he spoke, added: “You’ve got to be quick on the draw to get them scheduled because everybody wants these folks.”

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