Russo: Need to assess your mariners’ proficiency? Simulators can help


One of the hardest things to determine when considering hiring an experienced bridge officer is answering the question about how qualified that person is to perform the job. Related to that issue is determining how proficient an existing employee is following an incident. In both cases, the mariner has a license, but that does not answer the question.

Knowing what constitutes proficiency is essential in understanding the nature and role of mariner performance evaluation and assessment. Training is the systematic development of knowledge and skills required to perform a specified task. Competence is having adequate knowledge or skills to perform occupational activities. Proficiency is demonstrated ability to perform the task. Having a license means simply the mariner has the required knowledge and might be competent.

The traditional mariner licensing process illustrates the difference between competence and proficiency. Officers are required to successfully complete an approved training course or a written examination during licensing. This method may demonstrate a level of knowledge at the time of the training course or test, but does not demonstrate the sustained ability to perform the job.

Simulators can provide a practical method for measuring levels of competence and proficiency as well as the ability to prioritize tasks. This is especially true for new-hires and can also be used to ensure an existing mariner has not lost proficiency.

A properly developed simulation allows for numerous opportunities for officers to demonstrate their proficiency. A good simulation creates situations where officers can demonstrate their ability to solve navigational and management situations that occur on vessels anywhere.

Actually measuring human performance using a simulator in the maritime environment has been recognized for quite some time. Some large companies as well as smaller ones are currently using proficiency assessments as an ongoing element in their Towing Safety Management Systems.

Constructing an assessment scenario requires realistic tasks that have three important characteristics:
* A series of independent decisions;
* The state of the task changes both autonomously (from a pre-scripted scenario) and as a consequence of the decision maker’s actions; and
* Decisions to be made in real time.

These characteristics of vessel navigation can be re-created and evaluated in a full-mission simulator by having participants solving tasks that are realistic, representative and carefully designed.

A well-designed evaluation begins with a nautical chart of a location not normally traveled by the participant. The simulation is built so that the elements of it are what a mariner would experience in real life: shoals, ATONs, other vessels, winds currents, etc. Carefully choosing the various elements ensures a realistic evaluation of proficiency. It’s important to note that a good simulation is not a “cowboy shootout” where an instructor attempts to overwhelm a mariner, but a carefully scripted series of events.

Prior to starting a simulator evaluation, participants are provided with everything they would normally need to develop a voyage plan entering an unfamiliar area. Typically this can be done the night before the simulation. The morning of the simulation allows for sufficient time to review the voyage plan.  

Obviously the mariner has to take the vessel from one place to another. Interaction with other vessels which have pre-set courses and speeds provide opportunities for applicants to demonstrate knowledge of the rules of the road. Some situations will require immediate attention while others might allow for different choices. Each of these situations requires the mariner to demonstrate proficiency to assess, plan, prioritize and act.

Interaction with other vessels is accomplished through radio calls to the instructor’s station that is typically in a different room and unseen by the mariner.

Scenarios are usually graded with a system that distinguishes between very good and acceptable proficiency as well as proficiency that might require some improvement along with unacceptable proficiency.

Using baseline criteria established by a joint agreement between the company and the training facility, the assessment will measure the knowledge, skills, and proficiencies in areas such as:
* Voyage planning
* ColRegs and rules of the road
* Situational awareness and decision making
* Observance and compliance with company policies and procedures
* Bridge Resource Management and communications
* Other watchkeeping/navigational responsibilities

Mariners are usually rated rather than scored and a simple rating system is used such as:
* Highly Effective
* Effective
* Not Effective, or
* Unsafe

Normally the entire process takes one day. The mariner is given about a half-hour to become familiar with the simulator. The mariner then undertakes the simulation without any critical interactions such as encounters with vessels or other objects (which would require a critical decision to be achieved in a real-time frame). This “dry run” might require a half-hour also. Finally the entire simulation with various interactions and environmental conditions might require a 45-minute session.  

Results of the simulation are normally recorded both electronically and visually. The results are shared with the mariner and, of course, the designated company representative. The results can be used by management to make informed decisions regarding recruitment, retention and improvement of a mariner’s skills.

Capt. Robert J. “Captain Bob” Russo is AWO RCP Auditor with Towing Vessel Compliance and is Chief Executive Officer of parent company Marine License Training Co., both in Atlantic Beach, Fla. Visit

By Professional Mariner Staff