This article originally ran in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 2, 2018.
By: Anastasia M. Devlin
One of the hallmarks of the Coast Guard is its law enforcement (LE) mission, and while there’s great pride in the service’s LE history, one of its main programs needed a dramatic overhaul.
“We've always put emphasis on physical tactics and use of force,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Vinnie Sinacola, a reservist at Coast Guard Station Belle Isle in Detroit, “but when it came to the weapons qualifications and marksmanship, the training wasn’t there.”
Sinacola was active duty for almost ten years before joining the Reserve six months ago. As a senior coxswain and six-year boarding officer, he’d spent many days qualifying at the range, but practice opportunities were limited. He remembered watching the firearms instructors (FAI) marking the targets.
“It wasn’t a matter of getting enough 4s and 5s,” said Sinacola speaking about the old system of grading a target of concentric circles. “It was that we weren’t getting enough rounds on [target] at all. It was anticipating, jerking the trigger.”
He said the only way Coast Guardsmen could get practice was to take their personal weapons to a range on their own time.
What the Coast Guard was really missing was training, said Mike Rose, a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer with almost a dozen units’ worth of LE experience. In Rose’s twilight tour, a six-year stint at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), he began noting best practices by three-letter federal agencies and military branches.
“None of this is my invention,” said Rose. “We knew the system was broken based on the statistics.”
More than half of all Coast Guardsmen shooting the basic pistol course (PPC) were failing to qualify – a waste of thousands of dollars of ammunition. The negligent discharge (unintended shots fired, usually in a clearing barrel) rate was more than 20 per year. The evaluation of use of force was based on a predictable program decades old. The Coast Guard needed change in a big way.
Rose’s ideas began to gather steam in the form of a strategic needs assessment (SNA) chartered by the Operational Human Performance Advisory Council. The SNA identified 21 interventions needed to correct gaps in policy, procedures and training across the service.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Todd Cash, the weapons program manager for the Coast Guard’s Office of Capabilities (CG-7), helped assemble a team to nail down a solution. Lt. Cmdr. Andy Greenwood of the Coast Guard’s Force Readiness Command (FORCECOM) and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Phillip Campanella, chief of training for weapons schools at Training Center Yorktown, joined the team to cover all the bases.
WE TRAIN FOR EVERYTHING
Once service members left boot camp, they had limited weapons training. At the range, small arms instructors would give a quick rundown of what to expect during the course of fire, and from that moment, the very first shot to hit the target was graded.
“You’re not going to give a coxswain a 45-minute safety lecture and then tell him to go out and drive a boat,” said Cash, “but that’s essentially what we were doing with guns.”
Rose had seen how the FLETC instructors (who all came from different LE backgrounds) spent time on the range, breaking down something as small as “why does your grip matter?” The instructors would demonstrate and dissect techniques, building understanding until the students could apply those same principles, adjust their accuracy and raise their scores. Rose knew the Coast Guard needed something similar.
“FAIs weren’t taught to be instructors, they were taught to run a range, which is one of the problems we found,” said Rose. “When it came to diagnosing troubled shooters, that part of the manual was blank.”
The team spent more than a year working to restructure the process to include training and a more dynamic course of fire. They tested it at Training Center Cape May on recruits, and last January, phases I – III of the Firearms Training and Evaluation – Pistol (FT&E-P) course permanently replaced the basic and practical pistol courses (BPC and PPC). The new course includes four hours of pistol techniques in a classroom, and then moves to the range where a “crawl, walk, run” method exposes the shooters to 200 rounds of practical application. Only the last 50 shots are marked, and with the new system.
During the one-year testing phase, qualification rates shot up to 93 percent, much to the delight FAIs around the country. First-timers were qualifying, and units made fewer repeat trips to the range.
“I wasn’t a great shot when I came in, because I didn’t have a lot of time or practice,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Kyle Galbreath, a reserve BTM at Belle Isle, “but with the new course, the people who don’t get to shoot a lot are getting more time and more instruction. I’ve seen vast improvement in people’s scores — the more you practice, the more you progress.”
Galbreath is a Border Patrol agent in his civilian job who’s carried a sidearm daily for the last nine years. He’s become very comfortable shooting handguns, but he said the FT&E-P is good for those service members who don’t have that everyday exposure to firearms.
Chief Petty Officer Tim Lieb, FAI for Port Security Unit 309 in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a police officer with the city of Cleveland, and he carries a sidearm daily. He attended the “train the trainer” course where he learned teaching techniques and the new course of fire. Lieb said last year only two of the 120-member PSU didn’t pass the new course – a huge difference in the qualification rates in the past.
He credited his unit’s high rate of qualification to the trainers being better prepared to teach, as well as the student’s ability to learn and practice before being tested.
Sinacola agreed, citing the fact that not a single person at Station Belle Isle failed to pass the course. “Now [members are] getting time to be comfortable. The people who couldn’t qualify before, they’re qualifying now.”
While the program has been successful, there have been concerns that it requires a lot of range time for reservists, who already have a challenge to keeping up currency cycles (boat hours). The course consumes almost two days’ worth of drills twice a year. (Previously, range visits lasted about half a day.) This is nearly 10 percent of a reservist’s training availability.
Chief Petty Officer Jarrod Sadulski, the senior enlisted reserve advisor (SERA) for Station Lake Worth Inlet, Fla., spent twenty years split between the active and reserve components in the Coast Guard’s busiest law enforcement region, District Seven. He’s also served as a sworn officer with the Sunrise Police Department in Florida. Sadulski acknowledged the success of the program, but cited problems trying to find a range that was open on the weekend for not just one, but now two days in a row, twice a year.
“The spirit of the program is there,” said Sadulski. “It presents some time management challenges, but in the Coast Guard, we always find a way of making it work.”
Chief Petty Officer A.J. Tole, the SERA at Station Los Angeles/Long Beach, said, “Anytime a new program rolls out, it’s always a little cumbersome, but someone smart in the field comes back with a way to make it more user-friendly.”
This feedback is crucial, Cash said, because it helps fine tune the program. Tole concurred.
“The higher-ups are sometimes a little disconnected, but they listen when new ideas are kicked back up from the ranks,” said Tole. “Like when the gold badges send out letters asking for feedback. This clearly tells us they’re listening, and we appreciate that.”
COACHES GONNA COACH
More than 500 FAIs around the country are trained to administer the new course of fire, but the other critical part of the FT&E program was the firearms marksmanship coach (FMC). Historically, “coaches” were people who, after qualifying on the weapon, tried to throw out helpful suggestions when they saw a shipmate struggling. The FAI running the range would double as the official coach, but each periodic stop to correct a shooter slowed down the range.
By December, units will have FMCs at a 1:4 ratio to assist the FAI in helping members with techniques (breath control, sight alignment, stance, etc.), leaving the FAI free to administer the course of fire. (Until those coaches are qualified, the FAI will act in both capacities, but with only for four shooters on the range at a time.)
Candidates for FMC are identified by the FAI, who can spot a good shooter on the range. If they agree, the FAI will lay out a training plan with the commanding officer, which includes a formalized checklist and structured OJT. By the end of the training, the new FMC is able to teach Phase I, the classroom portion of FT&E-P. (Though Phase I resembles the pre-fire training from previous pistol courses, Campanella noted that FMCs won’t be able to do the pre-fire for shotgun and rifle courses; those will still be administered by FAIs.) He said the training an FMC receives is so extensive, they’ll already have many of the essential fundamental skills they’d get from Yorktown’s FAI course.
“These guys are doing it because they love it,” said Campanella, noting that all FAIs and FMCs are collateral duty positions. “At the FAI course, we fill every seat, every class. [Those who want to teach] are out there.”
That “click” of understanding and success becomes the motivation, he said.
“They’re passing that knowledge. When you teach someone for the first time, and see that look on their face, you see those lightbulbs go off, and you say, ‘I want more of that.’”
WATCH OUT FOR THE SECOND ENGINEER
It used to be that if a member had qualified to carry a weapon in the last 30 years, before long, they could eventually narrate the annual training course: a simulated, practical judgment course that was administered via video. And that only differed from the previous decade’s training in that the video had moved from the VHS to the DVD format.
Among the Coast Guard’s LE community, the Judgmental Use of Force Evaluation (JUFE) became routine for the BOs and BTMs who had to watch the same video every six months to maintain their qualifications. Participants knew to watch out for the wife if they were on the sailboat scenario, and if they got the engine room scenario, they knew to wait for the second guy to come around the corner.
Even when JUFE’s video got a revamp two years ago (using Coast Guard members as actors) it still didn’t test the members in a way that got their adrenaline flowing. The predictable scenarios, the rubber gun, the TV screen and the verbalized gun noises (“bang!” “bang!”) didn’t help members recreate the conditions under which their judgment would be tested.
ADRENALINE IS NOT SIMULATED
Because we act it out, no two drills are alike,” said Cash. “You’re going to be put in a situation where you’ll be required to think and act.”
Cash remembered an exercise in Miami where he was testing the phase IV scenarios on a qualified BO. Cash asked a Spanish-speaking role-player to switch languages mid-scene. As Cash watched, the pretend “boater” was asked to comply with regulations, but with a thumbs-up from the LEI, the “boater” escalated the situation, yelling at the BO faster and faster in Spanish, getting louder and angrier.
“He just froze,” said Cash, remembering the reaction of the BO, “and this is what we want – we want our boarding teams to know their reactions to situations before they encounter them in the real world.”
In addition to the ‘shoot/don’t shoot’ role-playing scenarios, every LE unit in the Coast Guard (around 450 nationally) will be receiving a kit with airsoft pistols, biodegradable training projectiles (plastic BBs), and inert props/weapons and face protection for role-players. Cash said units can expect them to arrive over the next year.
Phase IV training will be administered (within a month of completing the first three phases) by the LEI. Next year, Phase IV becomes part of the LEI “C” school at the Maritime Law Enforcement Academy in Charleston, S.C. (JUFE will continue to meet the Coast Guard’s legal requirements for training on proper use of force. Phase IV will become an additional requirement upon receipt of kits.)
Petty Officer 1st Class Steve Manuel, a FAI at PSU 308, has been looking forward to his members going through phase IV. As a prior Marine and a ten-year veteran of the Montgomery City Police Department in Montgomery, Ala., Manuel understands that adrenaline rush and how important it is to be able to think in the moment.
“I’ve been involved in shootings at work, and it’s one thing that was big for me,” he said. “This has real world application. It’s geared a lot more toward law enforcement. The old one was classroom with static fundamentals, but this new course, there’s more tactics in there. You understand more about getting out of the way or handling a firefight. It’s definitely more practical.”
WORKING OUT THE BUGS
While the course has been lauded at all levels and areas of the organization, a number of reservists feel that the classroom time is overkill, especially those in civilian law enforcement roles. Command staffs at active duty small boat stations are also dealing with sending both duty sections to the range twice a year, while still staffing a ready boat crew at the unit.
Cash appreciated the point of view but said the course had already been trimmed down to 12 hours from the originally recommended length of 20 hours. (Phase IV is additional time.)
He also pointed to previous time-consuming requirements, which included an hour of one-on-one time between shooters and FAIs quarterly, in addition to shooting the old course of fire semi-annually. While it takes more time, the lower failure rate streamlines the time units need to dedicate to the process.
Rose retired in 2017. In his new position as a civilian instructor at FLETC teaching firearms, physical techniques and tactics, he’s looking forward to seeing how the units fine-tune the program.
“When you look at it and you can say you know all the pieces are in place and the information is out there, you don’t want to be a hindrance to that process,” said Rose. “Once you’ve empowered people to do it, you step out of the way, and good things will happen. I can say I left with a positive impact on the service.”
Cash feels that impact already. In 2017, the number of negligent discharges in the Coast Guard dropped to 1.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Cash.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Cassandra Kintzley, a gunner's mate at Coast Guard Sector Boston, works at the Fort Devens firing range, in Massachusetts, to qualify Coast Guard members in weapons handling.