Subchapter M

IMX Panel Looks At Subchapter M Lessons Learned

A team of regulatory experts from across the maritime industry gathered for the virtual Inland Marine Expo 2020 to discuss lessons learned over the first two years of Subchapter M. Caitlyn Stewart, senior director of regulatory affairs for The American Waterways Operators (AWO) moderated the panel, which included Mary McCarthy, director of safety and quality systems for Canal Barge Company; Robert Keister, vice president of Sabine Surveyors; Capt. Tracy Phillips, chief of prevention for the U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District; and Tava Foret, president and co-founder of Towing Vessel Inspection Bureau (TVIB).

Phillips spoke first, leading with a status update for the four-year phase-in period for vessels to receive a certificate of inspection (COI) under Subchapter M. Just over halfway through the phase-in period, 44.3 percent of vessels throughout the country’s inland waterways have received COIs, while 44.1 percent of vessels within the District Eight area of responsibility have received the document.

“That is under 50 percent, where we should’ve been in July of this year,” Phillips said. “So we’re working on getting those numbers up to the 50 percent mark.”

Phillips said the total fleet size was just under 5,300 vessels. Of the 1,615 vessels that have received COIs within District Eight, 76 percent did so under the towing safety management system (TSMS), or with a third-party organization (TPO) of Subchapter M, while just 24 percent opted for the Coast Guard to conduct all audits and inspections.

Interestingly, Phillips shared statistics on which marine safety units (MSUs) and sectors within the Eighth District have issued the most COIs. Leading District Eight by a wide margin with 265 total COIs issues is MSU Houma, with Sector New Orleans following with 206 and Sector Houston-Galveston third with 165.

Phillips then discussed common issues found during towing vessel inspections that have led to vessel detentions over the first two years of Subchapter M enforcement. Of the 72 total detentions, 14 of which involved a safety management system deficiency, just over half of the deficiencies identified had to do with fire safety.

“This could be anything from missing fire equipment, fire extinguishing equipment that hasn’t been serviced or a fire extinguishing system that’s out of date,” Phillips said.

Another fire safety issue could be bare wires located in the same area as oil or other combustible materials.

“If you are preparing a vessel for Coast Guard inspection, this is a great area to start your pre-work to make sure you’re prepared for that inspection,” Phillips said.

McCarthy spoke next, representing the only towing vessel operator and TSMS-based company on the panel.

“Really, the biggest lesson learned from Subchapter M the last couple years is it worked,” McCarthy said. “I think it was a little bit of an experiment. We had high confidence in the experiment, but it was a different approach. I think we all wondered what the day-to-day would be like. The good news is the day-to-day is working.”


McCarthy said she saw the biggest benefit has been the flexibility of the program, a fact borne out during the first seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the closure of the Illinois Waterway and the fact that Canal Barge has had to execute chartering agreements between multiple business groups.

“It made us get really creative, and Sub M has been absolutely flexible enough to handle that, as well as our TPO, which is TVIB, although we work with Sabine as well,” McCarthy said.

Foret overviewed TVIB’s services and the just over 100 maritime companies it represents as a Subchapter M TPO. TVIB has more than 110 auditors and surveyors that work along the inland waterways and at the nation’s coasts.

“For us, the most significant lesson learned at this point is the importance of communications between the Coast Guard, the TPO and the operators,” Foret said.

Foret highlighted three main areas of importance for communication. The first was COI application and processing.

“We have seen inconsistencies between audits, survey and Coast Guard inspection results and how those can create concerns and issues for all parties when applying for COIs,” Foret said. “It also comes down to whether or not information was consistent with what was on the COD.”

Secondly, Foret focused on the handling of 835s, or vessel or facility inspection requirements.

The last issue Foret highlighted was audit notifications.

“Specifically, how operational considerations can impact the required 72-hour notification,” Foret said.

Foret said a vessel in operation may move between Officer in Charge of Marine Inspection (OCMI) jurisdictions during that 72-hour window.

“We have some operators that will actually notify multiple units at the same time and alert them that the vessel is in transit,” Foret said.

Internal Audits

Keister, representing Sabine, a TPO with more than 360 vessels on contract and about 190 COIs issued, said his company has seen that, for TSMS option companies to succeed, the most import thing has been their internal audit program.

“Without that internal audit program, and a strong internal audit program, the TSMS option is not going to succeed, because the TPO is only on that vessel potentially once every five years,” Keister said. “So the eyes on the vessel through the internal audit program and the scrutiny that an internal audit program puts on every vessel is key to the whole program working on the TSMS side.”

Stewart asked the panelists about changes or improvements they have seen over the first two years, and Keister spoke out about the importance of consistency and how there now exists more consistency between the individual Coast Guard units.

“I think over the last two years, at least in the Eighth District, everything has become much more consistent,” he said. “And consistency, when implementing a new program, is by far the most important thing. As long as everyone’s doing pretty much the same thing, we can deal with it.”

From the Coast Guard perspective, Phillips mentioned her district developing a “District Eight Commanders’ Intent” to lay out expectations for field units. The district has also hosted training sessions for OCMIs to make sure everyone was approaching Subchapter M the same way.

“Really our work to try and improve the implementation of Subchapter M has been focused on consistency,” Phillips said.

Predictably, each of the panelists discussed adjustments required by restrictions related to COVID-19. Companies and TPOs have responded in different ways, some pursuing virtual audits and inspections more openly, while others have relied more on extensions.

In each case, panelists stressed the flexibility of Subchapter M, a quality no doubt under-appreciated when the regulation took effect July 20, 2018, but nonetheless invaluable in 2020.