Congress instructs USCG to drop radar recertification requirement

Radar observer recertification courses have been a regular occurrence for deck officers for many years, but the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017 indicates that this will soon be a thing of the past. Congress has instructed the Coast Guard to “prescribe a final rule eliminating the requirement that a mariner complete an approved refresher or recertification course to maintain a radar observer endorsement.”

Radar observer has been required for all deck officers aboard most vessels since 1995, and aboard some vessels for much longer than that. The current regulations in 46 CFR 11.480 state that:

  • A radar observer endorsement issued under this section is valid for five years from the date of issuance of the certificate of training from a course approved by the Coast Guard.
  • A mariner may maintain the validity of a radar observer endorsement by completing a refresher or recertification course approved for that purpose.

Any changes to these regulations will need to be proposed by the Coast Guard and then codified by Congress, so it may be some time before the impending rule change takes effect.

Radar renewal courses consist primarily of a refresher course in manual rapid radar plotting, an older technique done at one time with grease pencils on radar displays and now typically done on preprinted paper maneuvering boards. It is rare among the small crews of merchant marine vessels equipped with automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA) for anyone to manually plot another vessel, and when multiple targets are present, the act of putting one’s head down for a manual radar plot can result in a dangerous loss of situational awareness for the officer on watch.

The widespread introduction of ARPA on most commercial vessels has nearly eliminated the need to do a manual radar plot while underway. The safe and effective use of ARPA does require a fundamental knowledge of manual radar plotting, but the operational use of manual plotting, as required in the refresher course, has been obsolete for many years.

This change is likely to be received with relief by many mariners, as the educational burden for working seafarers has increased substantially in the past decade.

The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2017 was introduced in both houses of Congress in May and was awaiting further action when lawmakers recessed in August. Inquiries to the CoastGuard’s National Maritime Center about the impending rule change had not been returned at press time.

For further background on this topic, see Capt. Kelly Sweeney’s Mariner’s Notebook from May 2016 here.

By Professional Mariner Staff