Coast Guard asks vessel operators to control crew cell phone use

The U.S. Coast Guard, which recently established new regulations for cell phone use among its own crewmembers, is urging private vessel operators to do the same.

In a safety alert issued Nov. 1, 2010, the Coast Guard warns of the potential dangers associated with distracted crews. It “strongly recommends” that vessel owners develop policies “outlining when the use of cellular telephones and other devices is appropriate or prohibited.”

“The potential risk associated with improper use of cellular telephones and other devices in the marine environment while navigating or performing other vessel functions should be apparent to vessel owners and operators,” the alert said.

According to Coast Guard casualty data, there were 19,252 reported marine casualties between 2006 through 2010, but only 23 involved distracted mariners. Of those 23 casualties, only two involved crewmembers who admitted being distracted by cell phones.

However, cell phone use by Coast Guard crewmembers may have played a role in two December 2009 collisions with private vessels. In South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, a 25-foot Coast Guard response boat broadsided a 55-foot power catamaran tour bout, injuring three passengers. In San Diego Bay, a 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement, or SPC-LE, rammed the stern of a 24-foot Sea Ray, killing an 8-year-old boy.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigators have uncovered potentially dangerous cell-phone use by Coast Guard crewmembers in those incidents, but the official causes are still under investigation.

Capt. David Fish, chief of investigations and marine casualties for the Coast Guard, said in a telephone interview that the safety alert was not spurred by any past incidents. Rather, he said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made a “big push” to limit distracted operation on all transportation modes, from cars to 18-wheelers to maritime vessels.

Indeed, distracted driving has been a key concern for federal officials. In October 2009, the government banned federal employees from texting while driving. In July 2010, the Coast Guard limited the use of cell phones for crewmembers on watch or in the wheelhouse.

Fish said the November safety alert is meant to encourage vessel operators to add a cell phone policy to their safety management systems — something that could be as informal as “a welcome aboard brief for new hires.”

“When you’re manning a safety position you should not be on a cell phone,” Fish said, adding, “you can’t assume anymore that people understand that.”

Capt. Joseph S. Murphy, professor of marine transportation at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, believes cell phone use among crewmembers is a serious problem.

“I know that it has become prevalent in the maritime industry today,” he said. “My own sons are involved in active shipping and they complain about cell phone use. I think it’s rampant through the industry. It is destined to cause problems for sure, because it does distract the crew.”

Murphy said the use of cell phones during watch periods is inappropriate. “When persons are on watch, their responsibility is to maintain a watch and that total concentration should be placed on the watch, and not telephoning, texting or e-mails,” he said.

Still, the question of where cell phone use is appropriate is far from settled. Mike Vinik, the owner and operator of Vinik Marine, a tugboat and maritime logistics firm based in Keyport, N.J., said he relies on his cell phone to communicate with other captains while at sea. As his company’s only full time captain, Vinik said it would be “very difficult” to manage the business if he didn’t answer calls while in the wheelhouse.

Vinik makes a distinction between using a cell phone while at sea and using one while driving a car, but added that there are occasions when he won’t answer phone calls, such as when he’s docking a ship.
He worries the alert is a precursor to more federal regulation over maritime cell phone use, and said operators should use common sense when using electronic devices at sea.

Casey Conley
By Professional Mariner Staff