|Rear Adm. James Watson, the Coast Guard's director of prevention policy, speaking at the Southeastern Small Vessel Security Summit in Orlando, Fla., in April. He will oversee the hiring and training initiatives designed to restore public confidence in the Coast Guard Marine Safety programs. [Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard]|
The Coast Guard hopes to increase its corps of safety inspectors and casualty investigators by 50 percent over the next year or so.
In a plan released in May, the Coast Guard said it intends to hire 276 additional full-time personnel for its beleaguered Marine Safety program. The new staff would be a mix of active-duty and civilian personnel.
Commercial mariners and government officials have criticized the Coast Guardâ€™s handling of its marine-safety role in recent years. Members of Congress urged the Coast Guard not to allow post-Sept. 11 homeland security responsibilities to eclipse its longtime duty to ensure that waterborne trade is conducted safely.
In response to the concerns, the Coast Guard issued a 32-page report entitled Marine Safety Performance Plan, which spells out a five-year strategy to increase staffing levels and improve training. The report can be viewed at www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg54/docs/MSPerformancePlan.pdf.
The Coast Guardâ€™s director of prevention policy, Rear Adm. James Watson, noted that the maritime industry continues to grow, posing a greater challenge for the Coast Guard in preventing and responding to marine casualties.
â€œI am focused on keeping accidents from happening, and I am totally committed to keeping the Coast Guardâ€™s prevention program the best in the world,â€ Watson said. â€œTo do that, I am determined to field highly trained professionals, who provide the best and most efficient service to stakeholders, and who constantly work to strengthen and improve our partnerships.â€
As of June, the Coast Guard employed 552 people in its Marine Safety program â€” 466 marine inspectors and 86 investigating officers, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Natalie Granger.
If Congress eventually approves funding for all 276 new hires in fiscal 2009, the Coast Guard plans to employ 42 additional people with the title marine inspector/investigator. An estimated 19 of those would be civilians, Granger said. Of the 129 new people at the marine inspector level, 38 would be civilians.
The Coast Guard wants to add 50 active-duty personnel to the position of junior marine inspector/port state control officer. An additional 28 people would be hired as support staff at Coast Guard headquarters. Half of those would be civilians, Granger said. An additional 27 active-duty personnel would be assigned as marine-safety staff under a training allowance.
The Coast Guard also intends to improve the technical expertise of the Marine Safety employees. The improvement plan calls for more classroom and real-world training so they are up-to-date with the commercial maritime community. The growth of both liquified natural gas shipping and changes in the towing industry present particularly acute challenges, the report said.
â€œThere is an identified need to increase the competency of inspectors and investigators as well as their knowledge of actual industry practices beyond that taught through normal training opportunities,â€ the report said.
The Coast Guard hopes the increased capacity will boost its credibility with mariners, who have lamented the lack of expertise among Marine Safety inspectors boarding their vessels. In addition, the Coast Guard said the larger Marine Safety staff will allow investigators to devote more attention to the 14,000 maritime casualty investigations they conduct annually.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Securityâ€™s Inspector General issued an audit that identified shortcomings in the Coast Guardâ€™s Marine Safety role. The Inspector General said the Coast Guard doesnâ€™t have enough competent personnel to investigate casualties, and Coast Guard headquarters closes casualty investigations without proper reviews.
The Marine Safety program â€œis hindered by unqualified personnel conducting marine casualty investigations; investigations conducted at inappropriate levels, and ineffective management of a substantial backlog of investigations needing review and closure,â€ the Inspector Generalâ€™s report said. â€œBecause of the management shortfalls, the Coast Guard may not be able to determine the causal factors of accidents and may miss opportunities to issue safety alerts or recommendations that could prevent or minimize similar casualties.â€
At least one member of Congress will be sensitive to the Coast Guardâ€™s budget request. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, held a hearing on the Inspector Generalâ€™s findings. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said the Coast Guard needs the extra people.
The problems with the casualty investigations are â€œanother example of the pressing need to expand the size of the U.S. Coast Guard,â€ Cummings said. â€œWe cannot expect any organization to operate at full capacity when it does not have the staff or resources necessary to do so.â€
The Coast Guardâ€™s report includes tangible â€œOutcome Measuresâ€ targets. By fiscal 2014, the Coast Guard intends to reduce the five-year average of U.S. mariner deaths and injuries to 441, from an estimated 529 in fiscal 2009. It wants to reduce the five-year average of collisions to 906 from 985.