The Challenge of Modernizing USCG Infrastructure: The Case of the Elizabeth City USCG Base

An Interview with Captain Bennett

Captain Carol Bennett (Credit Photo: Carol Bennett)

Earlier this summer Second Line of Defense interviewed Captain Bennett, base commander at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard Station. Captain Bennett discussed the challenges facing the facility with aging infrastructure impacting on operations and capabilities. Our website looks at concepts of operations and capabilities. Clearly one key aspect affecting both is the nature of the bases from which US and allied forces operate. Con-ops and capabilities are clearly intertwined with the physical assets available to the forces.

But while there has been much debate about the platforms the USCG is acquiring to replace its aging fleets of aircraft and ships, little attention has been focused in the public debate on the base of the pyramid, the basing infrastructure.


SLD: One of the things that people generally don’t understand is the role of infrastructure and how the state of that infrastructure affects the operational capability of the Coastguard. Give me a sense of how the kind of the condition of the infrastructure here on the base which is so central to the entire air capability of the USCG?

Captain Bennett: Essentially this is a World War II vintage base; it’s got a deep legacy here within the community in Elizabeth City. And it’s played a key role over the years since World War II. And really, any rescue that you see at sea or anything that the Coastguard’s doing out there on the high seas or picking up people locally in lakes, inland waterways, all that portion of the operations, you can reverse engineer from the operations to a base like Elizabeth City. For it is here where the folks go from to do the mission, where they’re trained, where they eat, where they sleep, and the equipment that they use and the training facility.

So you can connect all the dots and go back to where our person is trained and where the equipment’s maintained, and there’s a key linkage there; and if that foundation of support is not there, it’s hard to get those Coastguard men and women out there doing the mission with the right tools, the right training at the right time.

It’s something that the public at-large doesn’t see, but it’s very, very important to our Coastguard men and women.

SLD: One of the things that’s striking to me is that we rely on the Coastguard to surge to deal with a national crisis like in the Gulf oil spill. And we now have on this base, the complete support element for the entire air capability of the Coastguard. And yet, the warehouse which functions as the FedEx Memphis facility is in very old facilities that one certainly cannot call state of the art. How important would it be to get a more modern infrastructure to support the Coastguard Air Force?

Captain Bennett: Absolutely essential. As you stated, we have kind of a FedEx approach to aircraft maintenance. Elizabeth City maintains all the aircraft in the whole United States Coastguard. This is the hub where it all happens, all the spare parts, all major maintenance comes through here, Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

And currently our warehouse, which has a lot of these spare parts, is in need of great repair; we have a crumbling floor right now, which we’re buttressing up. This part of the country, we’re close to the Dismal Swamp, we have a lot of underground water. Actually, the warehouse is on top of kind of an underground river.

So the floor is sagging, so we’re looking forward to getting a new warehouse so we can adequately house all of the spare parts and get a state-of-the-art warehousing. Because if we have a failure here within Elizabeth City for the aircraft maintenance, it’ll affect the whole fleet throughout the Coastguard. We are a single point of failure. So that’s a huge infrastructure issue that we’re looking forward to working through.

But right now, we kind of a bridging strategy with a temporary fix on the floor, if you will.

SLD: Well, one way to look at the situation is that if we’ve had a public debate for a long time about the aging fleet, the aging aircraft, the various aging assets, and the challenge to retain coastguard personnel in difficult financial times.

But there’s absolutely no public visibility with regard to the state of the infrastructure and I would look at the infrastructure as the base of the pyramid for modernization and re-capitalization of the platforms for the USCG but there seems little traction for that view. Give me a sense of the nature of this kind of pyramid that’s crucial to the actual capability of the coastguard.

Captain Bennett: Currently on this base as I mentioned is the hub of aircraft maintenance for the whole Coastguard. One of the issues is that the base commanding officer that I deal with is just the actual roadways here on the base. Basically, again, we’re dealing with World War II roads.

SLD: Quite literally?

Captain Bennett: Yes, literally. We have a lot of traffic, we have almost 3,000 people coming in and out of the base every day, between the folks that work here and folks that come in for their ID cards or for their medical pharmacy or what have you, we have a small exchange here. And so we just have a tremendous use of our roadways.

But as we have our trucks and deliveries come in, there’s a lot of wear and tear on the roadways. In our construction projects, we typically, on the shore side, we focus on buildings or an air station hangar. And typically, we never get down to the level where literally you’re on the ground. But it’s a key issue, we have one main road here, it goes along the Pasquotank River. And it’s key that we maintain that, so currently my folks in facilities kind of patch up the potholes as they can, and keep things going.

I tell my staff, we’re kind of like electricity, until you don’t have it, you don’t care about it. The roadways, they just not something that gets a lot of visibility, and similarly, starting from the ground and then working up, we have a lot of other buildings that we can’t house all of our outdoor equipment; our trucks and some of our yellow equipment.

It’s all out in the weather right now; we’d like more garages for those. So all of those things that are behind the scenes that are very important to any municipality to run the town or a base well, which is really what this base is, it’s a small city and I call myself the mayor. We are focused on keeping the utilities operating such as the electricity, the water, the roadways and all those things that are behind the scenes; they’re behind all the rescues that you see at sea, and all the Coastguard men and women doing the operational mission.

One of the things in our tour, we just looked at was our old gym. The gym use to be a chapel, and then it was a movie theater in World War II. And now we have aerobic equipment in there and we have free weights and whatnot. And it’s adequate and it works, but it’s not the optimal solution.

We’ll get a state-of-the-art gym and the rescue swimmer training facility, but still, we still have needs on the whole level for this base for state-of-the-art physical fitness and equipment for all the folks that come through the base.

SLD: And the point is you have 2,100 personnel, and they’re not all going to be rescue swimmers?

Captain Bennett: Correct.

SLD: When you showed me all the outdoor storage — things that are exposed outdoors, and the World War II structures. One of the things that folks should realize is this is hurricane country. And given that we’ve decided to consolidate all of our aircraft support structure here, one thing that would concern me is the need to improve from protection from just the high winds and the hurricanes in the area.

And so, it would be probably optimal if we had some new capacity here that was more state-of-the-art and also more hurricane protective.

Captain Bennett: Yes, that’s spot-on. We do have a lot of sheds, as you mentioned, and equipment outside that should be properly secured and housed in substantial buildings. One of my initiatives when I got here was try to get rid of some of our sheds if we have a big blow here.

We’re working towards that, but it’s still been kind of slow going because we’ve grown a lot faster than we’ve been able to get the infrastructure there. So what we do is when we do have a threat of a hurricane, we do take some stuff inside, secure things as best we can. But it is a concern, because this is North Carolina and we have been known to get some pretty big hurricanes through here.

Ironically, as we discussed though, sometimes the aftermath of a hurricane will be bad that we lose equipment and may have building damage. We do typically get some supplemental funding, which will help in the rebuild.

We were able to reconstitute our waterfront on the Pasquotank River through the last major hurricane that we had, and we purchased new riprap and we also reroofed some of our buildings.

So that’s kind of the plus and minus of the hurricane season, but it’s certainly not the way to hope for hurricanes or whatever to get money to help recapitalize your base.

SLD: Thank you very much Captain.

Essentially this is a World War II vintage base; it’s got a deep legacy here within the community in Elizabeth City. And it’s played a key role over the years since World War II. And really, any rescue that you see at sea or anything that the Coastguard’s doing out there on the high seas or picking up people locally in lakes, inland waterways, all that portion of the operations, you can reverse engineer from the operations to a base like Elizabeth City. For it is here where the folks go from to do the mission, where they’re trained, where they eat, where they sleep, and the equipment that they use and the training facility.

So you can connect all the dots and go back to where our person is trained and where the equipment’s maintained, and there’s a key linkage there; and if that foundation of support is not there, it’s hard to get those Coastguard men and women out there doing the mission with the right tools, the right training at the right time.

It’s something that the public at-large doesn’t see, but it’s very, very important to our Coastguard men and women.

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***Posted on August 24th, 2010

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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