Coast Guard Tries to Fix Towboat Licensing Rule Problems

Thursday, August 16, 2001
The USCG published Interim Rules concerning new licensing regulations for Towing Vessels on November 19, 1999. These rules were generated in order to improve the safety record of the towing industry. There was great controversy over the evolution of these rules. Licensed individuals and operating companies considered these rules to be unnecessary overkill and were extremely reluctant to actively support the process. The Coast Guard aggressively pursued their objective and probably became so inured or jaded by industry’s vocalizations that the USCG failed to hear many legitimate concerns. As a result the Interim Rules published in 1999 were at best incomplete or at worst defective. In their defense the USCG has been working diligently since 1999 to publish an amendment to the Interim Rule before the original effective date, November 19, 2000, and publish a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) providing additional guidance to mariners and operating companies. All of the ongoing work could not be completed by the November 2000 date, so a six-month extension was granted until May 21, 2001. Immediately after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, a White House Memorandum was published delaying implementation by two months of any final regulations issued by the Clinton Administration while the regulations were being evaluated by the appropriate (new) department secretary (Department of Transportation in this case). This could also have affected any change in the regulation not yet published at the time. If the rules had gone into effect without a modification to the Interim Rule, no individual without a license specifically authorizing service on a towing vessel would be allowed to operate a towing vessel. This would include Master 1600 Ton licenses as well as Master Unlimited. Finally, on April 26, 2001, the USCG published another Interim Rules modifying the original 1999 Interim Rule, one month before the delayed implementation date of May 21, 2001. The USCG also published, on the implementation date NVIC 4-01, Licensing and Manning for Officers of Towing Vessels. Between these two documents, most reasonable complaints about the new licensing regimen seem to have been answered. The problem concerning personnel with existing licenses not endorsed for towing vessels has been resolved by continuing to allow them to operate towing vessels until their license is renewed. At renewal, the mariner must document 90 days of towing operator experience. This will probably work well if an individual is currently employed on a towing vessel. Showing this experience for a previous employer will no doubt be problematic. Without the 90 days of experience, the authority to operate towboats will be lost. The new Interim Rule also allows a licensed mariner without a towing endorsement to operate towing vessels (after 2004) if he has a completed Towing Officers Assessment Record (TOAR). The NVIC explains in terms operating companies and mariners will be able to understand, how the new rules work and how to complete the (TOAR). This NVIC should have been published 6 months before implementation of the rules. Unfortunately that was not possible. The industry Working Group, a committee under the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) worked diligently on the project, but balked when the USCG insisted that Performance Standards be developed on how to execute the TOAR. In general terms, the working group thought that this was unnecessary overkill. In other words, we do not yet know quite how to fill out the TOAR. These standards will purportedly be published over the next six months or so. Was the TSAC Working Group a device used by the USCG to make the rules more workable or was it used to jam something otherwise unpalatable down the very throat of the towing industry? There is probably at least a little truth in both thoughts. Offshore towboat licenses are no longer available over 200 Gross Tons. This will force mariners that need offshore towing licenses over 200 Gross Tons to use full Standards of Training, Certificating and Watchkeeping (STCW) licenses. The Master of Harbor Assist Towing Vessels will still be required to have 48 months total service, when in the past they could operate with an inspected vessel license that could be obtained with about two years service. This is a serious problem for the Ship Tugs and will have disastrous effect on future manning. The Interim Rule also asks some questions of industry including how to identify the Lower Mississippi River below mile 304 above Head of Pass. It was Inland Waters but is now Western Rivers. Didn’t we get rid of these designations 20 years ago? It looks like we are going backwards at an ever more rapid rate. To persons knowledgeable of the River this does not appear to be well thought out. It is curious that the rules do not talk about the weakest link in the licensing system, the Regional Examination Centers (RECs). Dealing with the REC is extremely difficult for the average mariner. It often takes 4 weeks to get an appointment and several appointments are often needed. Evaluators have too little experience and rotate on too short a schedule. It would be helpful if these junior or warrant officers were on their second marine inspection tour and assigned longer tours (4 years). If this cannot be done, the evaluator jobs should be civilianized. The USCG must find a way to make them more professional and more responsive to the mariner’s problems. Mariners in the towing industry travel a good deal to and from the job. It is not uncommon for things to be lost along the way. There is no discussion in any of these documents on how a mariner can replace a lost or misplaced TOAR and reconstruct documented experience items previously signed off. Without a discussion, it means that it will be extremely difficult to get a substitute through the USCG system. This will probably be a serious problem. Individuals must make sure they always leave a current copy of their TOAR in a safe place. To lose the TOAR may be extremely costly to the mariner. It is worth noting that the new rules now in effect are applicable to new hires that start their career after May 21, 2001. Personnel with towing vessel experience prior to that date can use the old rules until May 21, 2004. In other words, the burden of the new rules will all fall upon the newly recruited mariners. Several questions arise: With increased experience, training and general complexity of the license will it be possible to obtain adequate numbers of licensed personnel over the next five to ten years? Many in industry say not. The new system imposed creates a new vessel structure and training pipeline for personnel. Has there been any demographic analysis that demonstrates the availability of these needed new hires to the towing industry? It seems probable that the towing industry is not going to magically acquire the ability to recruit the needed personnel. Why is the USCG putting so much emphasis on the Performance Standards for executing the TOARs? The items on the TOAR only include obvious items every professional mariner would insist on learning on his/her way up. The USCG attitude toward the towing vessel industry seems almost punitive in nature. Is this because of the industry’s unwillingness to accept or embrace the STCW?
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