AWO Hosts Webinar On Remote Audits

The American Waterways Operators (AWO), as part of its monthly webinar series addressing the impacts of COVID-19 on the maritime industry, hosted a panel of experts May 12 that focused on conducting remote or virtual audits and inspections during travel restrictions put in place to combat the novel coronavirus.

The webinar featured Marcia Macone, director of quality assurance programs and performance for Crowley Maritime; Tava Foret, executive vice president of the Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau (TVIB); Paul Hite, towing vessel operations and senior surveyor and lead auditor for the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS); Ric Singley, president of S&L Maritime Consulting; and Cmdr. Andrew Bender, supervisor with the U.S. Coast Guard Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise.

Brian Bailey, director of safety & environmental stewardship for AWO, moderated the panel and set the tone early on by emphasizing that, regardless the medium used to conduct audits or surveys, the result should be the same: safe operations on the nation’s waterways.

“As the tools we use to conduct audits and surveys change, it’s important that our longstanding commitment to using audits and surveys to maintain and improve safe operations remains the same,” Bailey said.

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Front and center during the webinar was the fact that, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions, companies are still supposed to achieve certificates of inspections (COIs) for 50 percent of their fleet of towboats by July 20, according to the four-year phase-in period for Subchapter M. Currently, about 32 percent of industry towboats have received COIs.When COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, led to the shutdown of much of the country and to strict social distancing measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease, the Coast Guard issued MSIB 09-20, which includes guidelines for how towing companies can continue pursuing Subchapter M compliance. Options include conducting virtual activities in place of in-person audits and surveys or deferring a required inspection or exam for up to 90 days. Some towing companies, in partnership with third-party organizations (TPOs), are using mobile apps like FaceTime, Google Duo or Zoom to connect shoreside compliance staff members and vessel crews.

Bender said the Coast Guard would like to see companies lean toward virtual activities in order to stay on schedule with audits and surveys.

“Under the circumstances, we highly encourage remote activities over extensions,” Bender said. “Extensions are just that. You aren’t exempt from the compliance activity. It will actually compress the timeline of the extended activity and the following required compliance activity. And this, of course, can make things more difficult for you.”

Macone said incorporating virtual activities into Crowley’s compliance program has been a learning experience, which has benefitted from constant improvement. She shared some of the ways Crowley has had success with virtual activities, including gathering required documents ahead of time and holding tabletop safety drills. Macone said a challenge has been spotty cell coverage for vessels underway.

“It’s been a really challenging and exciting time to overcome this,” Macone said. “The crews have been on board with it. I think they’re learning a lot and it’s been a good learning experience with the audit process.”

Singley added that, for the virtual audits his company has been a part of, his auditors have conducted both phone interviews and vessel walkthroughs via either Google Duo or FaceTime.

Besides required annual audits, some companies are moving forward with COI inspections virtually. Foret described one such virtual inspection that was conducted earlier this month in New Orleans.

“The Coast Guard inspectors came in and using Google Duo directed the captain on the items to look at and survey,” Foret said. “Later in the day, they went out on a crew boat to observe, at an appropriate distance, fire drill, fire pump and so forth. I’ve seen it now from both sides, and it seems to be working well.”

Thus far, Foret said COVID-19-related requests have leaned more toward extensions rather than virtual activities. Of 116 requests submitted to TVIB since April 1, 78 percent have been requests for extensions, while 22 percent were for virtual activities.

When asked if virtual activities are here to stay, Bender said Subchapter M never prohibited or specifically endorsed remote work.

“For the most part, remote work isn’t prohibited, but it’s yet to prove itself as an equivalent to physical presence when it comes to compliance oversight activities,” Bender said. “From our perspective, we plan to leverage what we learn from using remote work techniques to minimize boots-on-deck time, but we don’t see remote work replacing physical presence for the foreseeable future.”

Hite agreed with that assessment.

“You’re never going to get a one for one replacement with an actual person going on board conducting these audits, whether internally or externally, or surveys as well,” he said.