Fleet Safety And Preparation Is ‘Something Everyone Should Be Talking About’

Lt. Cmdr. Takila Powell has been with the Coast Guard since 2002. Before she arrived back in the Investigations Department of District 8 in New Orleans in June (where she had previously served), Powell served as chief of prevention for the Marine Safety Unit in Paducah, Ky.

As an investigations officer, Powell investigated many barge breakaways and other marine incidents. She explained to The Waterways Journal that authority over barge fleets is divided. “It’s the Corps of Engineers that issues the fleet permits. When the Coast Guard investigates an incident, the first thing we do is to see if the fleet is complying with its Corps permit.”

Fleet operators should always know what’s in the permits that allow them to operate, Powell said, despite difficulties that may arise. Sometimes permits could be years old or could have had their conditions changed without the knowledge of the personnel responsible for managing the fleets. They could have been filed in the era of paper records and not be easily accessible. The time to learn that your permit is being violated (even if unintentionally) is not after an incident.

Although it’s not required by any regulation, fleet operators are sometimes encouraged by their insurers to voluntarily submit fleet management plans to the Coast Guard for approval. “These plans may address not just what to do in case of an event like a hurricane or high water, but may also address ordinary fleet safety practices,” she said. In those cases, said Powell, they, along with the company’s operations manual, are the next thing an investigating team will look at after they determine whether a fleet is in compliance with fleet permit conditions.

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“Across the inland system, high water is probably the greatest contributing factor to barge breakaways,” said Powell. It’s not always possible to comply with incident plans. There are times when employee safety is paramount. Powell remembers one case in which a small harbor boat sank in high water when it was clearing debris around a barge fleet in order to comply.

In Powell’s opinion, the most important items of equipment for safe fleet management are sound mooring lines and winches.

Other than Corps permit requirements, few regulations specifically address barge fleets, Powell said. They are specifically mentioned in Title 33 CFR Part 105.296, which require that there must be one vessel for every 100 barges in the facility. This only applies to facilities subject to the Maritime Transportation Security Act, though; many fleets are not.

The Lower Mississippi River does have a regulated navigation area between Miles 88 and 240 Above Head of Passes. It is regulated under § 165.803, title 33, which has detailed discussion of barges, fleeting practices, barge and fleet surveillance practices, and conditions for moving barges and securing breakaways.

Fleeting areas in other regions have few specific regulations other than Corps permit conditions. Subchapter M has no specific provisions addressing fleet practices, said Powell.

Industry collaboration is key in implementing best practices. In 2011, the U.S. Committee of the Marine Transportation System issued a “Preparedness Task Team Final Report: Best Practices for Preventing and Managing Breakaway Vessels,” incorporating lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Fran, Gustav and Ike. Industry-led advisory committees like the Towing Safety Advisory Committee and others include fleeting practices among issues they address.

When Powell was chief of prevention in Paducah, she spearheaded the formation of the Four Rivers Fleeting Association, along with Lt. Daniel Parker, also of Paducah. It was a forum in which industry partners shared information on best fleeting practices and were listed on a “bang list” for notification of high-water events. She said the Coast Guard in Paducah is beginning to gather more barge breakaway statistics. Powell said she knows of a similar industry group that shares barge data on the Upper Ohio River.

Powell said she is very glad to see such cooperative efforts taking hold. “This is something that everyone should be talking about,” she said.