The U.S. Coast Guard documented 25,324 vessel deficiencies in 2018, according to the service’s second Domestic Vessel Annual Report. Deficiencies in the U.S.-flag fleet increased by nearly 3,700 from 2017, while deficiencies per inspection rose by 8 percent.
Lt. Amy Midgett, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the service does not attribute the year-over-year increase in deficiencies to an overall maintenance decline. She explained that as the number of vessels in the inspected fleet has grown, the Coast Guard has raised training standards for marine inspectors and safety management standards for operators.
Under 46 CFR Subchapter M, which took effect in July 2018, all towing vessels 26 feet in length or greater have become part of the inspected fleet. This has increased the total fleet size by 50 percent, according to the report.
“The phase-in of Subchapter M, increased Coast Guard oversight following El Faro, improved marine inspector training, and an emphasis on writing deficiencies even if corrected on the spot or self-reported … are all factors that contribute to an increase in deficiencies,” Midgett said.
Since the fatal sinking of El Faro in 2015, the Coast Guard has made efforts to improve training for marine inspectors, she said. The Flag State Control Division, established last year, has set performance expectations.
Objectives include preparing inspectors to identify issues with safety management systems (SMS) during material conditions inspections. Inspectors are also training to conduct audits of SMS, as well as quality management systems, that follow international standards.
“In 2018, 90 (inspectors) were trained in SMS; 20 were trained in ISO 9000. The Coast Guard will continue to conduct this training for additional personnel in 2019,” Midgett told Professional Mariner.
The focus on safety management applies to operators, too. Coast Guard inspectors began flag-state detentions in 2018 for vessels with ineffective SMS.
“There has been a focused effort to push (SMS) or, absent SMS, ensure owners and operators are proactively managing the condition and safety of their vessels. The use of the flag-state detention enables us to focus on vessels that have weaker SMS,” Midgett said.
Caitlyn Stewart, director of regulatory affairs for the American Waterways Operators (AWO), said the proactive safety culture of her organization’s members has played a role in the relatively low rate of tugboat deficiencies.
The Coast Guard report, which contained five months of towing vessel data, showed a rate of 0.26 deficiencies per vessel, the lowest of the seven vessel types surveyed.
“As a benchmarking, this first number, this first data point, is promising,” Stewart said.
Midgett said the Coast Guard may see an increase in the deficiency rate as more towing vessels come into compliance with the regulations. She encouraged operators to report deficiencies, as self-reported information does not appear on the Port State Information Exchange.
Towing operators must have a certificate of inspection (COI) for all vessels in their fleets by 2022, a requirement the Coast Guard is phasing in gradually. The process has been marked by inconsistencies in the interpretation of the new regulations and questions about enforcement, according to industry observers (see story here).
“Companies that proactively got vessel inspections done last year, I think they’re the ones that are, generally speaking, very focused on regulatory compliance and safety,” Stewart said.
She also noted, however, that AWO members have been implementing SMS since 2000. Additionally, the organization and the Coast Guard have collaborated to track safety statistics since 1995 through the Coast Guard-AWO Safety Partnership.
Given the resulting safety improvements in the towing vessel sector, Stewart said she does not expect to see sharp increases in the deficiency rate going forward.
“While we expect to see further improvements as a result of the implementation of Subchapter M, the record (has been) very good,” she said.