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CHIPS Articles: New technology makes crossing quarterdeck quicker, onboard crew counting easier and more accurate

New technology makes crossing quarterdeck quicker, onboard crew counting easier and more accurate
By JO2 J. Ellen Maurer - October-December 2002
If you want to cross the quarterdeck of Navy hospital ship USNS COMFORT (T-AH 20), you'll need a new article of technology that resembles a credit card, and buys you access to a world of personal information and shipboard accessibility.

The days of signing in and out in a bright green logbook are over. Comfort has implemented a paperless program that allows Sailors to swiftly swipe their way to liberty and tracks their status -- aboard or ashore -- in a computer database system. Now, instead of long lines when leaving and returning while in port, a Comfort crewmember can be processed in a few seconds. Entire ship's crew musters can be calculated in a matter of minutes.

The speed and flexibility in this new process is especially important aboard Comfort, due to ship's unusual manning situation. Unlike other Navy ships that have a permanent crew both in port and at sea, Comfort's crew fluctuates with the ship's status. Berthed in Baltimore, Md., the ship is regularly staffed with a Reduced Operating Status staff of 58 Navy service members and about 20 Military Sealift Command civilian mariners, who are tasked with keeping the vessel, along with the hospital within it, ready to go.

In order to get the ship and the hospital up to Full Operating Status and ready to deploy, active-duty Sailors report to Comfort from their permanent duty stations, mainly military hospitals along the East Coast, such as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. If needed, the ship's medical and support staff could swell from 78 to more than 1,214 crewmembers within hours of the call to duty. In order to make this happen efficiently, Comfort, needs a system that can quickly and accurately track exactly who is aboard to maintain mission readiness.

Comfort is currently the only ship using a swipe card system that not only tracks crew lists, but also maintains each person's personal (Page 2) information, training record and current duty status. Also, printed on the card is each person's life raft assignment, mustering station and photo identification. Yet, this is only part of the program's full potential, according to Comfort's Chief Information Officer, Lt. David L. Felton.. He and his crew, along with a team from the vendor who made Comfort's system, led the ship's swipe card set up just one week before the ship deployed in late June to the Baltic region in support of a joint medical training exercise. Felton says that even though Comfort has had this Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) system for only a short time, he is already able to see ways to expand the ship's use of this technology.

The swipe system originated in the commercial cruise liner industry. "In the cruise line industry, these cards are hooked to everything, including the patron's credit card. Essentially, they can use their swipe card for purchases, as if it were a credit card. I think there is a way we can use that part of the program on a Navy ship," claims Felton. "The swipe card could potentially eliminate the need to write a check for a mess bill. It could even be used in the ship store, if we wanted to set it up to work that way."

Felton adds that while these cards are opening up many new possibilities, such as a quick exit to liberty, they could also be used for a quick exit off the ship in a life or death situation. The cards already have each crewmembers' life raft assignment printed on them. The system, he explains, could be expanded so that Sailors can use their swipe card when boarding their life raft, eliminating the need to find and check off names from long lists of paper.

The usefulness of the system and its database is that not only can it tell people where they should go, but it can also monitor what they must know. This technological tool is especially helpful for HM3 Daniel St. Hilaire, a corpsman assigned to keeping track of Comfort's Staff Education and Training program. Currently, he uses the swipe card database to makes lists of crewmembers for mandatory shipboard safety training, annual Navy requirements, and graduate-level educational classes, all of which were conducted aboard the ship during a recent deployment. He can assign each person to the necessary classes and update their training record - all through Comfort's swipe card system database. "This is another big advancement towards a paperless Navy," says Hilaire. "Not only does it save us time because we don't need to search through lots of filing cabinets looking for an individual's folder, but this program also saves space, which is incredibly important on a small ship like this."

Ironically, Comfort really isn't that small - it's roughly the size of three football fields, or nearly 900 feet. When fully readied for a medical mission, Comfort is considered to be one of the largest trauma facilities in the United States. Therefore, most of the ship's space is used for the shipboard hospital's mission. This means that administrative areas must be kept to a minimum to make room for the ship's 12 operating rooms, 1,000 in-patient beds, blood bank, emergency room and four intensive care units.

In fact, Comfort's new swipe card program could even potentially be used to keep track of patients. The system is set up to collect data in categories. Currently, when you search the system for crew information, it will tell you exactly how many active-duty Navy personnel are on the ship. It will also give you another listing of hwo many civilian mariners are aboard. When the ship recently hosted a reception during port visits in Southampton, England, the system also kept track of the number of on board visitors. A slight system modification could create another category in the database to list patients.

For Sailors like Plans, Operations and Medical Intelligence Officer, Lt. Dean Teague, a prior enlisted Navy diver who has been in the military for more than 20 years, there have been many changes to the service's way of doing business. This one, he says, is definitely for the better. "I see many benefits to the swipe card system, and I am sure we'll even be able to make further use of it, and like technology, to better complete our ship's mission," Teague admits. "All this is more than many of us could have imagined 15 years ago. Younger Sailors -- they've grown up with this stuff. They've been using computers since junior high. "I remember the days when you didn't have e-mail, so you wrote a letter. I can even recall getting paid in cash during a Mediterranean cruise in 1984. Now, most ships have ATMs. But back then, if you wanted to watch a movie, you all had to gather together on the mess decks and pick one on reel-to-reel [tape]. "Then, if you wanted to listen to music, you had a cassette player...No, I take that back. The only music you got was a breakaway song after you did an underway replenishment."

Times may change, and the Navy's use of new technology may grow, but Sailors and their sea stories will always stay the same.

USNS Comfort crewmember, HN Rafael Rodriguez Lopez, using new technology to swipe his way through the ships' quarterdeck, eliminating long lines for liberty and the need to handwrite information in log books. Photo by JO2 J. Ellen Maurer.
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