Towing vessel ‘bridging’ examinations, which were voluntary, shift to involuntary phase

The nation’s Towing Vessel Bridging Program has passed a turning point this summer.

Previously, the Bridging Program’s safety examinations were voluntary and were scheduled at a time convenient for the operator. Beginning in July, the U.S. Coast Guard began conducting mandatory exams in which enforcement action is possible if violations are found.

The so-called Phase 2 of the Bridging Program is the latest step in the regulatory process that eventually will result in the inspection of the United State’s 5,700 towing vessels. During Phase 1, the focus was on “industry-initiated examinations (IIE)” during which both the company and Coast Guard examiners learned as they went along.

As of June, about 78 percent of towing vessels had received an IIE at the owners’ request, said Lt. Cmdr. J. Wade Russell, chief of the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise. The Coast Guard now is moving toward “targeted prioritized examinations” to sniff out the rest.

“In Phase 2, the Coast Guard will aggressively seek out vessels that have not received an examination during Phase I,” Russell said in a statement to Professional Mariner.

“Unlike IIEs, the Coast Guard will suggest a time and place for the examination and the company must comply,” he said.

The Bridging Program was created in 2009 in partnership with American Waterways Operators (AWO) as a transitional step for uninspected towing vessel (UTV) operators to prepare for the eventuality of mandatory inspections, or Phase 3 of the program. After last year’s public comment period, the Coast Guard is still drafting revisions to that proposed rule.

Phase 2 represents a major shift in the Bridging Program as the Coast Guard assumes more of an enforcement posture and visits operators who aren’t volunteering and may not be ready, said Lynn Muench, AWO’s senior vice president for regional advocacy.

“The dynamics of the relationship will change somewhat because they will now be working with companies who really have no desire or interest in collaboration,” Muench said. “It will not be a collaboration like it has been. It will be very much a regulatory process in that the Coast Guard will go out and stop boats when they need to stop them.”

Companies caught off guard may suffer expensive disruptions as the Coast Guard shows up at a time that is convenient for the Coast Guard.

“The operator is going to have to have its vessels inspected without preplanning, so that will have an economic impact on these companies,” Muench said. “And these vessels will probably take longer (to examine) because they are not the stellar vessels that have already stepped forward.”

Phase 1 and Phase 2 safety examinations are virtually identical. The Coast Guard personnel review mariner credentials and the boat’s documentation, voyage reports, equipment and safety gear. During Phase 2’s prioritized visits, the “results may be handled differently,” Russell said.

“Deficiencies found during an industry-initiated exam, unless egregious, will be cited and the operator will have the opportunity to address the deficiency in a timely manner before a decal is issued,” he said. “On the other hand, deficiencies found during prioritized examinations may be cited as violations.”

IIEs are still available during the Bridging Program’s current phase, and operators who step forward can “negotiate the timing of the exam if within reasonable limits,” Russell said. Boats successfully completing an IIE receive a Towing Vessel Examination decal signifying that the vessel meets safety standards. The decal is good for three years.

“During Phase 2, the UTV industry operators are still permitted and encouraged to call their local Coast Guard unit and schedule an industry-initiated exam,” his statement said.

AWO sent out an alert to members urging them to contact their captain of the port to schedule a voluntary examination if they have not already done so.

By Professional Mariner Staff