Otis Harvey is one of many civilians who help staff the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG, Washington, DC) and other branches of the military.
"Some people have no idea of the vital role civilians play in our military," Harvey says. "We are the infrastructure. I'm an EE but my focus is the marine industry and the application of electrical engineering concepts and principles on board ships."
The USCG is one of the nation's five armed services. Its mission is to protect the public, the environment and U.S. economic interests in the nation's ports and waterways, along the coast, on international waters and in any maritime region as required to support national security.
Leading a team of twenty-five
As chief of the electrical systems branch at the USCG Engineering Logistics Center (Baltimore, MD), Harvey leads a team of twenty-two civilians and three members of the military. His team includes electrical and electronics engineers and technicians, equipment specialists and inventory managers.
The team manages engineering and logistics support for electrical systems and equipment on all classes of Coast Guard cutters and boats, a fleet of about 500. This is full life-cycle support, from design development, equipment selection and system construction through the utilization and disposal phases of systems and equipment.
"These folks are extremely talented and knowledgeable as engineers and logisticians. They make tremendous contributions to the Coast Guard's vessel purchase and maintenance efforts," Harvey says. "We establish engineering and logistic support philosophy for the Coast Guard on the systems we manage."
The group writes the specs for new ships as well as for mods to existing ones. Its area is anything to do with shipboard power generation and distribution, from generators and propulsion to motors and lighting, as well as plant control and monitoring systems, I/C systems and electronic navigation equipment.
The Coast Guard's eyes and ears
"We're the Coast Guard's eyes and ears," Harvey says. "We're responsible for technical oversight of the shipyards to make sure they remain compliant during each phase of ship construction from design to delivery." The team developed design construction requirements for the electrical systems of the surface vessels of the Integrated Deepwater System.
Deepwater, Harvey explains, is a program to replace the Coast Guard's aging fleet. It will include improved systems for propulsion control and monitoring, shipboard power generation, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and innovative logistics support. The result will be increased ability to intercept and deter activities that challenge U.S. sovereignty and security. Deepwater will extend U.S. maritime defenses hundreds of miles out to sea.
Meanwhile, it's up to Harvey's group to sustain the existing assets until the newer vessels are operational. The team also developed specifications for the new, state-of-the-art Great Lakes icebreaker which is now preparing for sea trials.
Diversity outreach through Compass
Harvey participates in the USCG's Compass program, a military/civilian diversity outreach initiative. As one of very few black civilian engineers in the USCG, he attends NSBE and SHPE conferences, high school and college career fairs and more.
"The Compass name is symbolic of the Coast Guard's desire to reach out to minority communities in every part of the U.S., and to have a workforce that reflects America," Harvey says. "The Coast Guard does an exceptional job recruiting minorities on the military side. I'm trying to let the minority communities know about the opportunities that are available to civilians."
Harvey grew up the middle child of seven in rural Prince George County, VA. "As far as life lessons, my parents were my mentors," he says. "They instilled in me and my siblings the importance of an education and the belief that anything is achievable through hard work and sacrifice."
As the family tinkerer, Harvey loved to take things apart and put them back together again. When he started at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, the freshman engineering orientation led him to decide on EE, and he got his BSEE in 1983.
Adventure on the highway
Harvey's first job didn't have much to do with EE, but it was certainly exciting. As a geotechnical technician for the Department of Transportation in the Federal Highway Admin, he traveled to proposed highway sites for preliminary assessments, and evaluated federal roadways for future maintenance.
Driving a truck hauling a trailer with a one-ton weight used to gauge the stability of the roadway, he traveled to every state east of the Mississippi, from Key West in Florida to New England. When he wasn't testing roadways he was traveling with survey teams considering new construction.
"Apparently I showed something in my work ethic and personality that made the program director feel I was a responsible young man," he says. "They sent me off with $200,000 worth of equipment and I was pretty much on my own."
Back to EE
After three enjoyable years he decided to pick up EE again. Now that he'd had some experience in government service, he found another interesting opportunity at the Naval Submarine Base (New London, CT). As a base facilities engineer, he developed construction requirements for new utility installations and mods to existing ones.
On his highway jobs he'd been the only African American. At the sub base he joined one other black engineer. He's currently the only African American engineer in his division.
"Throughout my professional career I've always been one of few black engineers in the office, if not the only one. That's just the way it is and you don't let it bother you," he says.
Managing at the USCG
Harvey thought there would be better career options in the Washington Metro Area. In 1990 he joined the USCG as a member of the team he now leads. His first assignment was providing technical oversight during construction of an ocean-going Coast Guard buoy tender.
He and his wife Val, also a graduate of A&T; and a campus manager for Strayer University, were married in 1990. They have two children, a daughter, Daria, now fifteen, and a son, Damon, fourteen. Harvey travels less now, relying on videoconferencing and other technology to communicate with other Coast Guard facilities.
Supervisors who recognized his talent mentored him along the way, and he took courses on managing people and projects. He likes to give his folks the resources they need and let them do their jobs.
"They have proved time and time again that they don't need me looking over their shoulders," he says. "I just point them in the right direction and let them go."
The Compass program gives Harvey an excellent opportunity to promote the Coast Guard to other minorities and women. He goes to at least two local events and one national event each year.
Harvey likes his demanding field and enjoys serving his country without the strict military lifestyle. "You truly see the results of your work each and every day," he says. "I truly love my job."