GAO: Too soon to assess effectiveness of Coast Guard oversight after El Faro

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The following is an excerpt of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO):

(WASHINGTON) — In October 2015, the cargo ship El Faro from the United States sank at sea during a hurricane, killing all 33 crewmembers. Concerns with the ship’s safety plan raised questions about how the Coast Guard ensures that U.S. commercial ships comply with safety regulations.

The Coast Guard relies on “recognized organizations,” third parties that the Coast Guard has authorized to perform activities such as ships’ safety plan reviews and safety audits. In 2018, the Coast Guard began improving its oversight of these organizations. For example, it developed key indicators for assessing their performance and issued new guidance and work instructions.

What GAO found

The Coast Guard verifies that domestic commercial vessels comply with safety management system (SMS) requirements through activities that include conducting annual inspections of applicable U.S.-flagged vessels. In practice, the Coast Guard delegates primary vessel SMS compliance activities to third-party entities, called recognized organizations (ROs). Among their responsibilities, ROs coordinate with vessel operators to review SMS plans, issue applicable vessel certificates, and conduct SMS compliance audits at the company level and aboard each vessel. Because the Coast Guard relies on ROs to perform SMS certification services on its behalf, it has initiated a series of efforts to enhance its oversight of ROs since 2018. The efforts include:

• Establishing a new group within the Coast Guard to monitor ROs.

• Developing new SMS-related guidance and work instructions.

• Increasing direct observations of ROs performing SMS audits.

• Developing key performance indicators for assessing ROs.

• Requesting internal investigations for certain RO deficiencies.

It is too soon to assess the effectiveness of these efforts; however, GAO believes these are positive steps toward enhancing the Coast Guard's oversight of ROs.

Each of the 12 domestic vessel SMS plans GAO reviewed include potential shipboard emergencies and applicable response procedures to address them. None of the plans address all 21 potential shipboard emergencies included in 2018 Coast Guard guidance. However, these 21 potential emergencies are not required to be included in SMS plans; rather, they are suggested as part of the 2018 guidance. Further, GAO found that the SMS plans may not address all potential shipboard emergencies because not all emergency scenarios are applicable for each type of vessel or geographical operating area. Also, vessel operators may still be in the process of revising their SMS plans to include additional emergency scenarios and applicable response procedures.

Why GAO did this study

In October 2015, the U.S. cargo vessel El Faro sank after encountering heavy seas and winds from Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 crewmembers. Subsequent investigations cited deficiencies in the vessel's SMS plans as a factor that may have contributed to the vessel's sinking. Some in Congress have raised questions about the effectiveness of vessel SMS plans and the Coast Guard's oversight of third parties responsible for ensuring vessels comply with international standards and federal regulations.

The Hamm Alert Maritime Safety Act of 2018 included a provision for GAO to review Coast Guard oversight and enforcement of vessel SMS plans. Accordingly, this report addresses (1) how the Coast Guard (a) verifies domestic commercial vessels' SMS plans comply with federal regulations and (b) conducts oversight of ROs, and (2) the extent to which domestic vessels' SMS plans identify potential shipboard emergencies and include applicable response procedures.

To address these objectives, GAO reviewed Coast Guard regulations and guidance, accompanied marine inspectors on vessel inspections and audits, and analyzed available data on identified vessel deficiencies. GAO also reviewed the format and content of a non-generalizable sample of 12 SMS plans representing various types of vessels and interviewed relevant Coast Guard and RO officials.

Click here to view the complete report.

By Professional Mariner Staff