Eleven years ago, a towboat captain was pushing two barges on the Arkansas River when he lost consciousness due to a heart-rhythm episode. Unbeknownst to his crew, the tow traveled along with the wheelhouse unattended for almost five minutes.
With no one steering or watching, Robert Y. Love crashed into a highway bridge, knocking down a 503-foot section. Eleven vehicles on the interstate highway plunged into the water, and 14 people were killed.
The so-called “I-40 Disaster” prompted regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere to propose requiring electronic motion- and thermal-detecting warning systems that would sound alarms in the absence of activity at a vessel’s bridge controls.
Dom Yanchunas photo
Capt. Larry Sullivan makes an adjustment to the BNWAS display panel.
Within the past year, the Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System (BNWAS) mandate has begun to enter into effect for large ships worldwide. In the United States, the latest Subchapter M proposed rule includes a “pilothouse alerter system” requirement for many towing vessels.
Regulators believe the systems will help prevent catastrophes like the Robert Y. Love accident and the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash in which 11 people died after an assistant pilot lost consciousness. Electronics manufacturers including Furuno USA, Navitron Systems Ltd., and Martek Marine, have designed BNWAS equipment tailored to large and small vessels.
“Many accidents were happening either because the operators were incapacitated or something happened when they either were asleep or they had a heart attack in some cases,” said Bill Haynes, a Furuno product manager. “This makes sure that someone is up and available on the bridge so the vessel isn’t underway and steaming through a hazard or a situation where a lot of people could be hurt.”
International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations have been the catalyst for many recent BNWAS installations on ships that operate internationally under Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) rules. Other operators, however, are choosing the systems voluntarily, said Justin Getzinger, general manager of International Marine Systems in Houma, La.
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“Most of my customer base has a strong interest in avoiding collisions and making sure the officers of the watch are maintaining a level of alertness and being mindful of their surroundings,” Getzinger said. “I have many sub-SOLAS fleet operators who are installing these systems on their vessels because it allows them to have a higher level of comfort.”
In the United States, the systems likely will be required on towing vessels within a few years. The most recent draft of the Subchapter M rules calls for pilothouse alerter systems for towing vessels with overnight accommodations and alternating watches, unless there is always a second person in the wheelhouse. The regulation states that the alarm must “have a method to detect possible incapacitation of the master … (and) require acknowledgment in the pilothouse within 10 minutes. If not acknowledged within 10 minutes, promptly notify another crewmember and be distinct from any other alarm.”
As a result of the Robert Y. Love crash, a few towing companies began purchasing BNWAS before any governing body required it. That trend has accelerated after the Subchapter M rule was revealed.
Courtesy Martek Marine Ltd.
Martek Marine Ltd.’s Navgard BNWAS equipment, including the display panel, reset and alarm lights.
One vessel newly equipped with BNWAS is Emily Anne McAllister, a 4,650-hp z-drive tractor tug based at Norfolk, Va. A Furuno BR500 was added to the wheelhouse during the ship-assist boat’s recent five-year overhaul. Emily Anne’s master, Capt. Larry Sullivan, calls it “a good safety fallback.”
Emily Anne’s BNWAS is set to go off if no activity is detected in the wheelhouse for three minutes. Sullivan said McAllister Towing, American Waterways Operators and tugboat customers emphasize the need.
“It does give you that added sense of safety and security,” Sullivan said.
“The customer is going to want that extra added safety feature for the personnel they’re hiring to move their ships or cargo,” he said. “Personally and for the crew, it’s a benefit because if there is a sole person in the wheelhouse of the tugboat and he drops dead of a heart attack or falls asleep, that alarm goes off.”
BNWAS equipment is highly customizable. The timing, sound and succession of alarms can be adjusted to suit the vessel owners’ preferences. Detectors can interface with the autopilot and can reset when the steering or throttle are manipulated from either the main console, bridge wing or upper wheelhouse.
If the alarm duration is set for X number of minutes and there is no activity detected on the bridge, first an alarm will sound on the bridge only, allowing the captain to reset the system if he’s nearby, without bothering the remainder of the crew. If no reset results from the initial alarm, a subsequent alarm expands the alert to reach other parts of the boat, including crew staterooms.
“A lot of fleet operators will only want to have this alarm enunciate in common areas such as a galley or a lounge or an officers’ lounge,” Getzinger said. “Many operators in our industry in the oil and gas market, they see an added value in going beyond just the third-stage alarm in common areas and actually triggering the general alarm. The general alarm is pretty much going to allow everyone to muster and you will induce a response.”
Navitron’s NT991 offers a choice of 20 different alarm sounds, including a shrill ping that is hard to ignore.
“It should be annoying, and I can promise you that anybody in the bridge that is alert, this would definitely warrant a response,” Getzinger said. “Because there are so many alarms that have the potential of going off in a pilothouse, all of the manufacturers of BNWAS systems have numerous audibles in the pilothouse specific to their system.”
For vessel officers, who can be confronted with a multitude of various alarms during their watch, it’s important that BNWAS not result in false alarms that disrupt attentiveness to other duties. Sullivan said the Furuno system aboard Emily Anne does not go off unless there is truly nothing happening at the wheel.
“You have to be dead still for three solid minutes, which is hard to do,” Sullivan said. “The system only works when you’re actually clutched in and you’re operating.”
Each BNWAS system is equipped with a tamper alarm to prevent a crewmember from intentionally disabling the warning alarms.
“Say if an individual is becoming aggravated because an audible is going off in a cabin or a common area, if that individual attempts to remove any of the covers, per IMO, there is actually a tamper switch function that will trigger an alarm and therefore preventing the individual from disconnecting the audible,” Getzinger said.
BNWAS equipment comes in various sizes and number of components that are usually designed to minimize the space it takes up in the wheelhouse. They include a display, processor unit, flashing lights, timer reset panel and cabin panels.
“In our case it’s external, so it makes it very convenient for installing the wires and cable ways,” Haynes said. “This system also acts as a call watch box. If you need to generate an all-crew alarm to let people know there’s something going on on the bridge, you can do that.”
Steve Coulson, sales director at Martek Marine, said large ships generally are installing BNWAS during their next dry dock, per the IMO timetable that phased in the requirements beginning in 2012 and 2013.
“It may be that the management with smaller tonnage will wait until the last minute,” Coulson said. “People need to plan a little bit ahead.”
Coulson expects a large wave of U.S. installations as a result of Subchapter M. “We are making a compact version to fit into the compact bridge of these towing vessels,” he said. “We are going to shrink the interface down.”
If you order well ahead of the deadlines, Getzinger said it will be easier to schedule an installation.
“It’s unfortunate that various aspects of the vessel market will wait until the last minute for these systems to be installed. At the end of the day, though, it is a mandate, a carriage requirement,” Getzinger said.
“You’ll have a crunch, and your lead time will expand substantially, and some of the manufacturers are probably going to hike the prices,” he said. “These operators would be better-served planning this in advance.”