Subchapter M fire rules provide new protection for mariners

In the not-too-distant past, stepping aboard a tugboat may have meant going to work with little or no fire and safety training, little related equipment and having to learn by trial and error — and hopefully the kindness of an old salt or two. On many of those occasions, the learning errors were quite costly in the form of property damage, injuries and even death. Congress had seen enough, with towing vessels historically accounting for 68 percent of all U.S.-flag commercial vessel collisions, groundings and allisions; 30 percent of all U.S.-flag oil spills, and 30 percent of all work-related deaths and injuries among U.S. mariners. 

On July 20, 46 CFR Subchapter M for the inspection of towing vessels became law for most U.S.-flag boats in the industry, complete with a phase-in program for 100 percent implementation within 11 years. The goal is to see a sharp reduction in the sobering statistics listed above by reclassifying most U.S.-flag towing vessels as subject to Coast Guard inspection. 

Subchapter M Part 142 will require all towing companies to bring their vessels up to the same fire safety standards as the deep-sea, unlimited tonnage U.S.-flag vessels. This is a welcome change for U.S. merchant mariners employed in the growing U.S. towing industry. It should be noted that Subchapter M was developed with deep cooperation from the commercial towing industry and the Coast Guard’s Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), as they too want the safest possible working environment for mariners. 

Many of the 1,096 U.S.-flag towing companies had extensive and effective fire safety policies in place before Subchapter M. Unfortunately, many did not. Part 142 of Subchapter M consists of three subparts broken down further into 17 sections. Here is a look at the new fire protection standards that directly affect U.S. mariners:
• Approved fire prevention and firefighting equipment — Part 142 of Subchapter M requires all firefighting appliances to be Coast Guard-approved for marine use. No longer can a towing company shop at a local hardware store to pick up a hand-held kitchen fire extinguisher for a tug. This requirement will improve the ability of mariners to fight a fire and save their vessel. 

• Fire prevention — Fire hazard minimization through good housekeeping and the proper storage of flammable and combustible products in UL-listed secured storage cabinets is now mandated.

• Fire drills — Part 142 requires mandatory fire drills and instructions for all crewmembers once a month, exactly like their deep-sea counterparts. Moreover, these drills must be performed as if an actual emergency is occurring. 

• Fire prevention training — All crewmembers must be familiar with their assigned firefighting duties on the required muster list. Further, all crewmembers must be able to effectively fight engine-room fires in addition to fires in other spaces. Finally, they must be trained and proficient in operating all fire-extinguishing appliances, be able to stop mechanical ventilation, operate fuel shutoffs, make closures, activate the general alarm, operate fire detection systems and equip themselves in a fireman’s outfit, including the operation of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

• Safety orientation — In a nod to the success of the International Maritime Organization’s safety management system (SMS) requirement for sanctioning new crewmembers on deep-sea unlimited vessels, Subchapter M Part 142 mandates that all new crewmembers, within the first 24 hours aboard, receive all instructions and cover all contingencies listed above under training. 

• Fireman’s outfits — Part 142 brings with it the obligation to carry at least two fireman ensembles approved by the National Fire Protection Association, at least two SCBAs approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and at least one fire ax on board certain vessels. 

• Portable and semi-portable fire extinguishers — The new law requires a specific type and quantity of both portable and semi-portable fire extinguishers as designated in a CFR table. No longer will this be relegated to opinion, circumstance or company policy. Now mariners will have the correct extinguisher at the correct location in the correct quantity. 

• Fire mains, fire pumps and fire hoses — Part 142 specifically states each vessel must now have the most critical fixed firefighting equipment — that is, the fire main, fire pump or pumps, and fire hoses. Again, as with their deep-sea counterparts, the towing vessels affected by Subchapter M must comply with the type, construction, capacity, placement, quantity and quality of these critical firefighting appliances. 

• Fire detection systems — Towing vessels under Subchapter M must be fitted with approved fire detection systems as per 29 CFR 1910. The systems must meet a plethora of specifications as delineated in Part 142.330 to include control panels, detectors, alarms, fault detectors, switches, power requirements and design. 

• Inspection and testing — Subchapter M requires testing annually, or more frequently, of all firefighting appliances including extinguishers, fire detection systems, fixed systems, ventilation, shutdowns and dampers. 

• Record keeping — Inspection, testing and maintenance of all firefighting appliances must be recorded in the towing vessel record (TVR) official logbook as well as in the towing safety management system (TSMS) if applicable. This includes dates, specific tests, identification of each appliance, results, name of the auditor/inspector/surveyor/crewmember responsible, and any applicable receipts.

U.S.-flag towing vessels choosing the TSMS option for Subchapter M compliance will enhance their fire protection program that much further. TSMS provides flexibility, accountability in establishing responsibility for fire protection, continued compliance with fire protection regulations, consistency with procedures, and proper documentation. 

The nation’s towing industry regulators have clearly seen the success of the IMO’s SMS requirements in returning safe, efficient and effective results in the international shipping industry. These same successes now will be possible in the U.S.-flag towing industry through Subchapter M. It is true that Subchapter M has many requirements, and that there likely will be more down the road. However, each extra safety requirement is worth the extra effort because one grounding, collision, oil spill, crippling injury or mariner death is one too many.

Capt. Sean P. Tortora, USMS, is a master mariner with 25 years of sea experience. He currently serves as an associate professor in the Department of Marine Transportation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and is the author of Study Guide for Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting, and Fire Safety, published by Cornell Maritime Press. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not those of the USMMA, the Maritime Administration, Department of Transportation or U.S. government.

By Professional Mariner Staff