Coast Guard, TPOs, Vessel Operators Continue To Work Through Subchapter M Rules

The Coast Guard, third-party organizations (TPOs) and vessel operators continue to negotiate and adjust as the inspection process documenting full compliance of the towing fleet with Subchapter M continues.

A distinguished panel at the Inland Marine Expo discussed the issues in a session titled “Safety and Compliance (Sub M and Beyond)” The panel was moderated by Dave Hammond, co-owner and president of Inland Marine Service, the largest inland vessel management company in the U.S., with more than 700 customers. Panelists included Capt. Scott Stoermer, commander of Sector Upper Mississippi River; Chris Parsonage, executive director of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau; Rob Keister, vice president of Sabine Surveyors and a Coast Guard veteran; and Paul Hite, senior surveyor and lead auditor at class society ABS. Much of the panel involved questions directed toward Stoermer.

Enforcement Suspended

Stoermer was asked what would happen to a vessel operator who does not meet the July 20 deadline of having 25 percent of his or her vessels certified under Sub M. He replied, “We are close to [having] 25 percent of vessels either certified or in the queue,” and the Coast Guard plans no enforcement action this year. Parsonage later said some TPOs like TVIB regard the non-enforcement as “not quite fair” to companies out in front that spent a lot of time and money with TPOs ensuring that they met Sub M requirements.

Stoermer said the non-enforcement policy could change as the deadlines come due for 50 percent of 75 percent of vessels to be certified. He recommended all operators consult the Coast Guard’s TugSafe website, a tool for assessing the inspection-readiness of a vessel. He said it sets the scope of all inspections and noted that a vessel entered into TugSafe  “is not visible to the Coast Guard” but only to the operator.

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Stoermer said any inspection will look first at any possible hazardous conditions involving the state of lifesaving and firefighting equipment, and also at basic documentation. In response to a question about what happens when a company “doesn’t understand the regulations,” Stoermer said, “We won’t find ourselves in that ‘educator’ role. We may negotiate a little on small things.”

To another question about lessons learned in the Sub M process so far, Stoermer said, “Keep communicating with your local OCMI [officer in charge of marine inspection].” He said the reporting process has undergone some “maturation” but that “now we are getting applications that are complete.” He reiterated several times that “The Coast Guard is not a free surveying service; we expect to visit inspection-ready boats.” He said that in the days of the “bridging program,” a transition period to Sub M, “some companies used the Coast Guard as a free surveyor service.”

Keister asked about “special considerations” for certain non-critical issues like aluminum (instead of steel) paint lockers or how many flares a vessel must carry. Stoermer noted that while any flexible considerations issued by one OCMI apply only to that district, they will “usually” be respected by other OCMIs.

Reporting Deficiencies

Parsonage said, “One of the bigger issues we see [at TVIB] is the question of reporting marine casualties. While we don’t require operators to report 835-V items, we do want to be notified.” Coast Guard Form CG-835-V, Vessel/Facility Inspection Requirements, introduced in April 2018, was designed to capture more detailed deficiency data from Coast Guard-inspected vessels.

Parsonage noted that all vessels are assumed to be Coast Guard-inspected vessels until they declare that they are under a TSMS [towing safety management system]. That declaration happens when a vessel applies for a certificate of inspection (COI). Stoermer confirmed that “Yes, we treat all uncertified vessels as Coast Guard-inspected until notified otherwise, but reporting marine casualties can be a point of negotiation with your local OCMI if you are planning to do a TSMS.” He said 65 percent of certified towing vessels have a TSMS; the remaining 35 percent are Coast Guard-inspected.

Parsonage said there is still a “training gap” at some companies. Hammond said that when his company’s vessels began carrying more liquids, it took several years to inculcate the changes the company wanted toward greater safety awareness.

Hammond asked Parsonage to explain internal surveying, an option under which a company selected its own internal person authorized to do a vessel survey. Parsonage said the process is the same as with a TPO, and the same standards must be met. “Companies must ensure that internal surveyors feel free to report negative information,” he cautioned. An internal auditor cannot be the same person as the designated person ashore.

In response to another question, Parsonage said TVIB’s understanding is that there is currently no Coast Guard guidance on the TPO’s role, if any, in overseeing or monitoring new construction. “We are happy to get involved if asked,” he said.