Two serious collisions prompt Coast Guard to review its own small boat operations

Two serious collisions involving U.S. Coast Guard small boats have prompted the agency to conduct a review of vessel operations, training and policies.

In February the Coast Guard’s commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, ordered the Coast Guard’s Force Readiness Command (FORCECOM) to study “small boat operational doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures.” The deadline for the report is Aug. 1.

The review is the direct result of two similar December 2009 casualties occurring on the evenings of holiday boat parades. On Dec. 5, a 25-foot Coast Guard response boat broadsided a 55-foot power catamaran tour boat in Charleston Harbor, S.C. Three passengers on the tour boat were injured.

Fifteen days later in California’s San Diego Bay, a 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement boat, or SPC-LE, rammed the stern of a 24-foot Sea Ray recreational boat. The accident killed an 8-year-old boy and injured five others. Witnesses reported that the Coast Guard boat was speeding in an area crowded with pleasure boats. Families of the victims have filed lawsuits alleging wrongful death and negligence.

Both incidents remain under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, Coast Guard and other agencies. Enough is known, however, that Allen posted an “All Hands” message on a Coast Guard Web site explaining that the two casualties damage the Coast Guard’s good name.

“Over the past several months, we have experienced two tragic mishaps within the boat forces community. These incidents involved one death (and) serious injuries and put our crews and the public at unnecessary risk,” Allen wrote. “Furthermore, they threaten to undermine public confidence and damage our reputation as competent and professional boat operators.”

In March, FORCECOM established a panel of Coast Guard boat-operation experts, trainers and policy developers who will conduct the review, said Lt. Cmdr. Clayton Beal, a training management officer.

The group will supplement a wide-ranging study of boat operations that was conducted about 20 years ago, said Chief of Boat Forces Capt. Ted Harrop.

“That identified the environments we operate boats in and the people and skill sets and equipment,” Harrop told Professional Mariner. “This group is looking at these areas to update it … to identify changes in those three things and determine whether there are any technological enhancements that could be deployed.”

The Coast Guard has more than 4,000 boat operators, many of whom are relatively young. Beal said boat-forces policy will be studied, along with training needs.

Allen emphasized that higher-level officers need to be engaged in the process of ensuring that boat operations are safe. The Coast Guard will establish a Boat Forces Advisory Council to foster communication between headquarters and the field — and to advise on policy, training and acquisitions.

“We must instill in our crews the ability to balance mission execution and sound operational risk assessment,” Allen wrote. “They must remain vigilant in identifying and mitigating risk in every mission and in all operational environments. That critical balance between on-scene initiative and risk management is achieved only through rigorous training and direct command involvement.”

By Professional Mariner Staff