Voluntary towing inspections give crews a glimpse of the future

Capt. John Cater IV and the crew of the tugboat Wye River spent an October afternoon accommodating a U.S. Coast Guard examiner who checked over virtually every aspect of the 4,200-hp vessel. The visit was neither punitive nor even mandatory.

MST1 Joshua Gonzalez, a towing vessel examiner with Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay, boarded Wye River at Philadelphia’s City Dock as part of the current round of voluntary, “industry-initiated” towboat examinations.

Gonzalez reviewed documents on the 96-foot tug and confirmed that the mariners were properly credentialed. He carefully inspected the Vane Brothers vessel's equipment ranging from firefighting systems and hydrostatic release casings to searchlights and survival suits.

"I've done examinations where these are completely missing or the bolts are rusted," Gonzalez said while checking seals on the starboard blower exhaust hatch. When properly shuttered, the cover can help choke an engine-room fire. Wye River's seals and bolts were fine.

The voluntary examinations are a glimpse into the nation's proposed first-ever system of mandatory inspections and audits planned for the next few years. In August 2011, the Coast Guard announced the proposed rule and invited public comment until Dec. 9. The regulation will cover about 5,200 towing vessels of at least 26 feet in length and any towing vessel that transports hazardous materials. For the first time, each will have a Certificate of Inspection (COI).

While the exact nature of the inspections won't be clear until the final rule is published, the current voluntary program is helping vessel operators and government examiners become familiar with potential areas of concern, said Steven Douglass, national technical adviser with the Coast Guard's Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise.

"It's going to be very similar," Douglass said. The voluntary program "has become a great partnership between industry and the Coast Guard and a learning experience for each side. It has been a constant dialogue between them."

The regulation would specify certain machinery and equipment — for example, a motion-sensing pilothouse alarm — that must be aboard each vessel. It would require the towing operators to implement towing safety management systems (TSMS) or undergo annual Coast Guard inspections. The TSMS option would be reviewed by a third-party auditor.

"The biggest issue with the proposed rule is the choice that companies are going to have to make on whether they want their compliance to be based on the traditional Coast Guard inspection or whether they opt for the third-party audit and surveyors," said Kevin Gilheany, a safety consultant with Maritime Compliance International in New Orleans.

In the proposed rule's current form, undergoing Coast Guard inspections may be an easier option because the towing company wouldn't need to adopt a TSMS framework.

"The intent of the safety-management system is really to say we're going to have company policies now on, for example, bridge transit procedures, and not leaving to chance or to leave it up to a particular captain's experience," he said.

In allowing companies to choose how they will be regulated, Coast Guard officials bowed to concerns that "mom-and-pop" operators would be at a cost disadvantage versus a larger company with its own compliance department. At the same time, some shippers seek to hire operators who can prove they abide by the highest safety standards.

"The Coast Guard option was developed for cost-effectiveness for smaller companies," Douglass said. "The TSMS option is for a company that wants to compete and is going to be vetted regularly by customers."

Among the industry organizations that helped the Coast Guard develop the proposed rule were the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) and American Waterways Operators (AWO), which runs the voluntary Responsible Carrier Program. Former TSAC Chairman Jeff Parker said he will be disappointed if not everyone needs to follow a TSMS.

"We see this as a pretty serious diversion from what TSAC proposed," said Parker, vice president of operations with Allied Transportation Co. in Norfolk, Va."We don't see how a vessel can be operated safely if you leave that management role up in the air. All towing vessels should have a safety-management system, and all systems should be scalable so that the smaller companies can comply just like the bigger companies with bigger resources."

While the Coast Guard promises that its inspections will be stringent, failing to require a safety-management system up front threatens to undermine the program "if the real reason we're going down this road is to prevent casualties, and 80 percent of the casualties are from human error," Parker said.

"The Coast Guard option should be part of the enforcement mechanism and not the initial compliance mechanism," he said. "The big hammer should be the Coast Guard option, and some people are perceiving the Coast Guard option to be the less-cost, less-hassle, easier-to-comply-with option."

The Coast Guard said 1,059 towing companies already use safety-management systems, covering 2,941 vessels.

Whether they are large or small, operators may judge that it's riskier to expose a TSMS to an official critique, even if it's a non-governmental auditor instead of a Coast Guard boarding team.

"It's one thing to be confident in your written procedures and that your captains are implementing your procedures. It's another thing altogether to bet your COI on it," Gilheany said. "And the guy across the river went with the traditional Coast Guard inspection and got a COI without having his captains quizzed on whether they are complying with the company's written procedures."

Preserving ethical standards will be another challenge, considering that classification societies and maritime consultants typically offer a variety of services, he said.

"The third-party auditors will have to provide a statement that they will not engage in any work that will be a conflict of interest. That's extremely hard," Gilheany said. "Is there going to be a clear distinction between the companies that write the safety-management system and train in the safety-management system and those companies that audit on behalf of the government?"

That's a concern of the National Mariners Association (NMA), which has seen examples of operators who disagree with audit findings asking the auditing organization to send over a different auditor. NMA's president, Capt. Joe Dady, said the third-party auditing system may lead to abuses and is only as good as the documentation from the vessel crews.

"This is not going to work unless the Coast Guard can enforce it," Dady said. "They should have built a system from the beginning that was a risk-based analysis."

Even under the third-party-auditor system, the Coast Guard will do the initial inspection to issue the vessel its COI, Douglass said.

"You have to start somewhere," Douglass said."We'll have a Certificate of Inspection on every vessel. There will be definite parameters that the vessel can sail under."

The current voluntary examinations are educational for both the towing vessel crewmembers and the Coast Guard personnel as everyone gears up for the coming regulations, said Capt. Rick Iuliucci, general manager of Vane Brothers in Philadelphia.

"There is a huge benefit to that shared learning," Iuliucci said. "It's a benefit to the mariners to get used to the process."

On Wye River, for now, the officers stick to the Vane Brothers system of onboard record-keeping that includes voluntary regimens such as regular self-inspections, a crew endurance management system and documentation of any equipment problems they discover. Capt. Cater's mate, Chris Murphy, is responsible for weekly chart updates and voyage reports.

"So we're prepared, and we're prepared for any spot inspections, and the office stays informed," Cater said. "It keeps us up-to-date on when certificates expire and when we have a deficiency and we need to take care of it."

On the bridge, Gonzalez meticulously checks the GPS, horn and backup bell and ensures that pressure-releases in the engine room are on the correct setting. On deck, he tests EPIRBs and a self-contained breathing apparatus. He makes sure alcohol test kits are on board and the employee assistance program information is posted. He confirms that a professional engineer's letter accompanies the fire-protection system. He reads over the stability letter, load line certificate and the garbage record book.

At the end of the examination day, Gonzalez and Cater stick a decal on a port-side window indicating that Wye River passed the bridging-program exam. It's valid for two years.

By Professional Mariner Staff