Maintaining the USCG Polar Fleet: The Role of Maintenance

Every Coast Guard member stationed on a cutter knows the challenge of completing multiple maintenance projects simultaneously to get their cutter back underway. But for two of the Coast Guard’s polar ice breaking cutters – the Healy and the Polar Star – each in-port period is more than just the average dockside or dry-dock availability. The operational schedule these cutters maintain generally allows for only one in-port period per year. This timeline compresses all maintenance worklist items into a short period and requires a massive amount of coordination to complete.

One critical component to the availabilities of these polar ice breakers, is the role of Maintenance Augmentation Teams (MATs). MATs are located throughout the Coast Guard and act as shore side engineering workforces to support cutters within their regions, and worldwide through surge support. For example, the MAT in Seattle is responsible for depot-level maintenance for the polar cutters as well as three 210-foot Medium Endurance Cutters, and the Cutter Alex Haley homeported in Alaska. This MAT also supports the buoy tenders and patrol boats homeported in the Pacific Northwest. Strategic locations of each MAT throughout the Coast Guard ensures they are able to support their homeported cutters for both routine and emergency maintenance.

For the Healy and the Polar Star, MAT Seattle integrates into each in-port period early in the planning process. Around two months before these cutters return to homeport the engineering staff at Naval Engineering Department (NED) Seattle finalize maintenance worklists with input from the cutter crews. The MAT is a critical component to this equation and their worklists and timelines are set out with work often beginning the first day the cutter pulls into port.

“The coordination that take places is really amazing,” said Lt. Lindsay Taylor, maintenance and weapons division coordinator in Seattle, “Before the cutter pulls in, the MAT has already coordinated what work they can accomplish with minimal crew support (tag-outs etc.) so the crew can take a much-needed [break]. By the time they’ve returned, the MATs have already been at work completing projects and checking items off maintenance worklists.”

The ability and capacity for the MATs to surge is an added bonus that often gets called upon during availabilities for the Healy and the Polar Star. Although the network of MATs is attached to specific geographic regions, MAT members are able to travel and support larger projects throughout the cutter fleet. Because the polar cutters have such a compressed maintenance schedule this surge capacity is pivotal to the success of each availability.

Master Chief Petty Officer John Schmerber is the MAT Supervisor for MAT Boston and explained that while his first priority is to the cutters stationed in the Northeast, many of his team members look forward to surging in support of the polar fleet. “I love sending technicians out to work on something different,” said Schmerber, “it gives them a new experience, allows them to build skills, and I know that they are supporting a critical mission.”

To put this surge capacity into perspective, take an example from the Polar Star. In 2021, this vessel entered the first year of a five-year Service Life Extension Project (SLEP). In fiscal year 2021, in addition to the work MAT Seattle’s workforce completed on the cutter, 26 MAT members surged from 10 separate MATs throughout the country. In one 12-month period, MAT support aboard the cutter worked over 16,000 maintenance hours in support of systems throughout the 399-foot polar ice breaker.

“The role of the MATs is definitely a huge component to keeping these two cutters maintained.” said Taylor “MAT members have skills and trainings that complement and augment the expertise of the cutter crews. Between the MATs, the cutter crew, and contracted out maintenance we are able to perform all necessary work each time either of these cutters pulls into port to ensure they are ready for their next patrol.”

What are the benefits of working on at a MAT?  

Billets at MATs are highly sought after for their unique training opportunities and experiences across cutter platforms. These billets also allow enlisted engineers in the Coast Guard to stay within the cutter community while working shore side.

What training do MAT members receive?  

MATs have a different Master Training List than cutter crews. The machinery technicians (MKs),  electrician’s mates (EMs), and damage controlmen (DCs) who staff these teams have a unique set of skills they can apply to maintain cutter systems. While some C-schools these members attend are the same as the school required for the cutter crews, they also attend schools that focus on depot level maintenance items, specifically performed by members of a MAT. This training often allows the MAT teams to perform contract-level maintenance on cutters.

Do MATs and cutter crews work from the same in-port worklists?  

MATs and cutter crews have two different worklists while cutters are in-port. Generally, MATs focus on depot level maintenance and cutter crew handle organizational level maintenance. However, while MATs prioritize specific depot level worklist, they also often help with organizational level maintenance to relieve in-port burden from the cutter crews. In the future, MATs may perform more organizational level maintenance to help balance work life challenges associated with afloat billets.

Do MAT members only day-work? Or do they go underway as well?  

The frequency of underway or TDY time depends on the MAT’s specific location. Some MATs have less operational requirements after hours and are able to primarily day work and stand duty on the specific base they are attached to. Other MATs are called upon frequently to get underway with cutters during a shakedown cruise or a sea trial to complete underway operational equipment tests serviced during the in-port or stand-by for break-in repairs.

Most MAT members spend some amount of TDY time maintaining cutters within their geographic region of responsibility. This can include, if their homeported cutter dry docks away from homeport, if their cutter experiences serious maintenance issues while underway, or if the geographic area of responsibility for the MAT encompasses a cutter that is a significant distance away.

Where are MATs located?  

There are currently 24 MATs located throughout the Coast Guard. As cutters change homeport and new cutters come online the Coast Guard reevaluates these locations by for their effectiveness of servicing the cutter fleet in the most efficient way possible.

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