Subchapter M Is Still A Work In Progress

This issue of The Waterways Journal takes an in-depth look at  Subchapter M, which has an important milestone rolling out in July:  parts 140-144 kick in for all vessels that do not already have a certification of inspection (COI). Those sections govern requirements for operations, lifesaving, fire protection, machinery and electrical systems and equipment, and the “construction and arrangement” of the vessel.

It’s not really a “final” deadline. Subchapter M was published in its final form in June 2016, but in this case final isn’t really final. That’s partly by design. Many of its provisions and requirements will be phased in in a graduated way. Others may yet be deferred. Not until July 2027 will the implementation of Subchapter M be deemed “complete.”

What has become clear during the research for this issue is that Subchapter M is still a work in progress. The cake is not yet completely baked.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The lack of finality leaves room for the ongoing conversation between industry and the Coast Guard to continue. Even as this issue was going to press, The Waterways Journal got word of several important issues involving questions arising from Subchapter M language that could be addressed with new policy letters in the coming weeks or months. As frustrating as it may be for companies to wait for the answers, we understand why it might take the Coast Guard some time to work out the correct policies, and to keep silent until the official letter is issued. As a Coast Guard spokesperson noted to us, “The Coast Guard does not write prescriptive requirements for everything. So, like many other inspection-related subchapters, we address many things, but not all things, which provides the local OCMIs [officers in charge of marine inspection] with some latitude.”

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The extended dialogue between the towing industry and The Coast Guard in the years before the final publication of Subchapter M, through forums such as the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, included some gaps and moments of frustration for the industry, but was very worthwhile. The industry got to communicate its concerns and headed off some issues that could have posed further difficulties.

Flexibility in interpreting the fine points of regulations is like yeast in bread. Just the right amount of flexibility is good. Too much or too little can be equally bad. What towing operators, third-party organizations, officers in charge of marine inspection, and the Coast Guard itself are all working out right now is how much flexibility is the right amount. It’s much better for towing operators for this conversation to be ongoing, and for industry to continue to inspire and inform policy letters.