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My Coast Guard
Commentary | May 27, 2021

The Top Six Coast Guard Innovations of 2020

By Loretta Harring, Communications Manager, Coast Guard Acquisitions

Preventing marine casualties, improving field mission working conditions for female crewmembers, and ensuring the safety of spectators watching commercial space launches are among this year’s innovative ideas from our Coast Guard operators.  

The Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022 charges its workforce to “be bold, think anew, integrate new capabilities, challenge the status quo, and innovate how we conduct operations and provide related support.” The winners of the 2020 Captain Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Awards took that message to heart, applying innovation to specific challenges and ensuring the Coast Guard continues to provide enduring value to the nation. 

“If you want different outcomes in the Coast Guard, you have to think and do things differently,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, Coast Guard commandant, before recognizing the winning efforts during a ceremony April 30, 2021, during the Senior Leadership Conference at Coast Guard Headquarters. “We’ve just got the smartest people in America on our team…. this year’s winners are working in technological spaces and computer-based systems, [offering] practical solutions that affect Coast Guard operations … enhancing our ability to do the mission.” 

A quick look at this year’s winners: 

  • Data is key in an environment of limited resources and expanding mission sets, said Cmdr. Baxter Smoak, who represented the Adaptive Risk Model for Inspected Small Passenger Vessels project, which captured the Cmdr. Joel Magnussen Innovation Award for Management. By leveraging machine learning and information, “we were able to find a different way to manage an entire inspected fleet and better apply the resources we have.”  
  • Leveraging existing data is also the crux of CHAINLENK: Countering Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing with Data Driven Solutions, which won in the Science or Technology category. “When trying to combat IUU fishing, we used to go where the most vessels were,” said Petty Officer 1st Class James Lenkiewicz. “With CHAINLENK comes quality over quantity of boardings.” In addition to increasing the number of violations detected on foreign vessels, CHAINLENK has helped identify a new method that foreign vessels are using to evade law enforcement. 
  • Innovation doesn’t always require creating something new. Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristin Talbott, winner in the Culture Change category for her recommendation to provide urination devices to female crewmembers for field missions, said the key to change is sometimes “just talking about it. If you’ve got a good idea, or something that needs to be fixed, don’t keep them to yourself.” Having someone in your corner helps too; Talbott said she was aided in her quest by her operations boss, Petty Officer 1st Class Tom Moen. “He was super encouraging, and very supportive of the idea.” 
  • They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so it isn’t a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus behind two of the winning projects. “We had been asking how we could make our training more efficient,” said Cmdr. Joel Carse, a member of the team that won in the Administration, Training or Support category for Modernized Learning for Shore Forces Readiness. “And we are now on par with what the Naval War College is doing for their distance learning.” 
  • The Uninspected Passenger Vessel and Bareboat Charters Remote Education and Outreach project, winner in the Auxiliary Achievement category, is another online learning action prompted by COVID. With the online training options, Sector Miami was not only able to maintain their current level, “it allowed us to create even more products and get more participation,” serving the public, local law enforcement and Coast Guard boarding officers, said Auxiliarist Alvaro Ferrando. “We are even reaching new students from other areas.” This is Ferrando’s second Innovation award; he won for another outreach effort involving charter operators in 2018. 
  • Douglas Campbell, part of the team that created the Commercial Space Launch Risk Assessment Tool that won in the Operations or Readiness category, has another name for innovation: problem solving. “There is great national interest in commercial space, which drives people to watch the launches. We needed a way to quantify the risk (to those watching) and determine how to allocate resources to make sure they were safe…. I think the answer to most challenges lies within each unit.”