The Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise team stands in front of the office in Paducah, Ky. From left are Jim Van Wormer, Mike Kelly, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Mellor, Cmdr. Andrew Bender, Dave Phillips, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Belt and Steve Douglass. (Courtesy of the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise)

Towing Vessel National Center Of Expertise Celebrates 10 Years

The Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE) celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month, recognizing the accomplishments of the team that has helped lead the towing industry into the era of Subchapter M safety compliance.

The center, located at 504 Broadway in Paducah, Ky., was created in anticipation of a new regulation that transitioned 5,600 towing vessels from uninspected to inspected. Its mission is to facilitate commerce safely, securely and efficiently, said Cmdr. Andrew Bender, the center supervisor. TVNCOE opened in 2010, one year before release of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making for Subchapter M.

Paducah was the obvious fit for a national center dedicated to towing vessels because of the strong industry presence. An estimated 60 to 70 percent of the overall towing fleet operate on the inland rivers and Gulf Coast, Bender said. National centers of expertise as a whole—including the Outer Continental Shelf NCOE in Houma, La., the Liquified Gas Carrier NCOE in Port Arthur, Texas, and the Cruise Ship NCOE in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.—have been extremely successful in upgrading the responsiveness and effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s marine safety program, Bender said.

The center operates with a team of seven employees: three active duty and four civilians. Together, they have just over 200 years of experience, Bender said, with 150 combined years of Coast Guard service and 50 years of industry experience.

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“Civilians are the true strength, the backbone of every NCOE, and you can’t overstate the significance of their role at our unit,” Bender said.

Two civilian employees have been with the center its entire 10 years: Mike Kelly, West Coast technical adviser; and Steve Douglass, Midwest technical adviser. David Phillips, technical adviser for the Gulf region, has been with the center for eight years. The newest civilian employee, Jim Van Wormer, covers the East Coast and has been on the TVNCOE team for two years.

The three active duty employees are Chief Warrant Officer Mark Belt, a master marine inspector with more than 30 years of Coast Guard experience, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Mellor, national technical adviser, who has 20 years in the Coast Guard, and Bender, who also has 20 years of Coast Guard experience.

“I can’t say enough about the team,” Bender said. “It’s pretty awesome to see how they work together to provide support throughout the nation to our customers, both Coast Guard and industry alike.”

Bender, who was assigned to the center in 2017, is the fifth commander in the center’s 10 years. The center was opened by Capt. Greg Case. Its regular hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Its website is

One of TVNCOE’s major contributions to the program was working on the towing vessel bridging program, which the Coast Guard partnered with American Waterways Operators to initiate in 2009. It wrapped up as Subchapter M compliance requirements took over in July 2018. TVNCOE was involved in shaping both the proposed Subchapter M rule in 2011 and the final rule that came out in 2016, which included delegating to the TVNCOE the authority to approve and oversee Third Party Organizations (TPOs), critical to the towing safety management system (TSMS) compliance option, Bender said.

TVNCOE has also had a major role in training. Staff developed three major training curriculums. The Uninspected Towing Vessel Examiner Course was instructed from 2010 to 2016, during which TVNCOE, in partnership with the Coast Guard’s Training Center in Yorktown, trained more than 600 field inspectors and industry personnel. As the industry was learning about Subchapter M requirements, TVNCOE also became a source for regulation interpretation so industry could better understand Coast Guard expectations.

Beginning in 2016, TVNCOE instituted the Inspected Towing Vessel Verifying Officer Surge Orientation, which convened five times that year and trained 125 senior marine inspectors. In 2018, TVNCOE led the development and delivery of an eight-hour inspected vessel segment at the Marine Inspector Course in Yorktown, which teaches 120 apprentice marine inspectors annually. Since the advent of COVID-19, TVNCOE has been working to transition that course into one with a blended approach that includes distance learning, Bender said.

In 2017, TVNCOE developed and launched TugSafe, the first Coast Guard-sanctioned vessel inspection job aid, on its website. It allows users to enter vessel-specific information and auto-generates a checklist of items to be inspected. In 2018, TVNCOE expanded its online presence, creating TugSafe Central, an electronic compliance guide connecting users to applicable Subchapter M resources. It is widely considered as the online hub for Subchapter M.

Beyond that, Bender said, “We have instructed hundreds of mariners at Seamen’s Church Institute.”

Before Subchapter M, the Coast Guard was in charge of inspecting about 12,000 vessels on an ongoing basis. Subchapter M meant the addition of about 5,600 vessels to be inspected without the addition of other Coast Guard resources besides the COE and district towing vessel coordinators.

With the 50 percent deadline for certificates of inspection coming up July 20, Bender noted about 1,900 vessels have received certificates of inspection, well short of the 50 percent goal.

“A lot of work has been done,” Bender said, but he also noted that some companies have yet to meet last year’s 25 percent COI deadline, adding, “A lot of work still needs to be done.”

The Coast Guard has allowed some compliance activity extensions because of the effects of COVID-19, but not exemptions, Bender said. “We need to see more COIs,” he said.

At the same time, the inspection program is having positive results. Many towing companies have demonstrated a commitment to safety culture evident in TPOs certifying 240 towing safety management systems covering more than 3,300 towing vessels nationwide, he said.

“Have we made progress throughout this program, and are we confident the towing vessel community is safer for it? Absolutely,” Bender said.

Something not as quantifiable but extremely important the TVNCOE has provided has been the partnerships it has built along the way, Bender said. He credits TVNCOE with establishing and maintaining expertise and continuity, becoming a go-to resource for dozens of Coast Guard units, other government agencies, private industry and advocacy organizations such as The American Waterways Operators.

Bender said the towing safety program would not be what it is today without the cooperation among all those groups, adding, “You can’t say enough about the partnerships.”

Caption for photo: The Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise team stands in front of the office in Paducah, Ky. From left are Jim Van Wormer, Mike Kelly, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Mellor, Cmdr. Andrew Bender, Dave Phillips, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Belt and Steve Douglass. (Courtesy of the Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise)