USCG Towboat Licensing Rules Are Still Pending

Thursday, March 08, 2001
The saga of the USCG modification of the towing licensing rules continues. On Oct. 27, 2000 the USCG delayed by six months the implementation of the new towboat licensing requirements published November 19, 1999. They were to go into effect on Nov. 20, 2000. As you may recall, these rules make far reaching changes to the licensing system for towing vessels. They completely split towboat license off from the rest of the maritime licensing system. In general terms towboat licenses will not be accepted in non-towing service and visa versa. In the future, mariners without a specific endorsement for Towing on their license will not be able to operate a towing vessel. Their licenses will also become "area specific", endorsed only for a particular service: Great Lakes, Western Rivers, Inland, or Near Coastal.

The USCG has acknowledged that an additional rule making would be required to correct defects in the regulations that required clarification and that they needed to issue guidelines for implementation but will not state what defect(s) the regulatory correction(s) will fix. The Coast Guard asked their industry advisory group, the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) to form a special working group to assist in the process of generating an implementation Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC). The TSAC working group has now been diligently working for over a year to put together reasonable guidelines and assist the USCG to make the regulatory changes meaningful.

There have been numerous public complaints that speak negatively about these licensing regulations and the things that need to be fixed. Our list is small by comparison.

The USCG has agreed to make the old regulations applicable to mariners who are starting service aboard towboats but who have not yet acquired a license. As a transition the Coast Guard will allow that any mariner who started service and training for a towboat license prior to the effective date of the regulations could continue to use the old regulations for licenses until 2004. The problem with this agreement is that it will require a regulatory change and does not include anyone who is going for a raise in grade or change in scope of his existing towboat license. These individuals must have a completed Towing Officer's Assessment Record (TOAR) before they can apply for the endorsement or upgrade. Unfortunately, TOARs cannot be completed until the USCG assessment performance standards have been created.

The TSAC Working Group has been working to develop a meaningful TOAR. In the end however, the USCG insisted that the TOAR be accompanied by assessment performance standards and that the USCG wanted the TSAC Working Group to prepare them. The Working Group respectfully declined, believing that their efforts to make the TOAR workable should be sufficient. If one didn't know better, one could come to believe that the towboat industry had just been invented and that neither companies nor mariners knew what they were doing, as that is the way they are being treated by the USCG.

This is a most peculiar situation. How could the USCG determine how much service time or experience was required within each operating area (Great Lakes, Western Rivers, Inland, Near Coastal) without first developing performance standards for each area that the USCG now insists must be developed? It must be remembered that the USCG states categorically that it takes a minimum of 90 days to become professional on Western Rivers while only 30 days are required to become proficient on Great Lakes, Inland Near Coastal for extensions of route. It demonstrates the arbitrary nature of the regulatory process and may indicate that the USCG doesn't really know what it takes in any of these Rules of the Road areas.

If performance standards are essential to the filling out of the TOAR, how can anyone already licensed obtain an upgrade or change in scope after the effective date of the rules if the standards have not yet been developed or circulated to the maritime public when the rules go into effect. If performance standards are essential, they must be developed before the rules go into effect.

According to the new rules, no one without a towboat endorsement on their license will be able to operate a towboat after the effective date of the regulations. The USCG has agreed to allow licensed personnel presently operating towing vessels using a superior license without a specific towboat endorsement to continue to operate towboats until they renew their license. If they then can show 90 days as operator of towing vessels their renewed license will have a towboat endorsement added. While this sounds great on the face of it, any mariner not currently working on towboats may have trouble getting letters for service for work five or 10 years previous when last they worked on a towboat. The prior employer(s) may even be out of business. Therefore they won't be able to operate towboats even if they have many of satisfactory prior years of experience and previously held a towboat license. A regulatory fix is necessary to remedy even a potential problem. This could seriously limit the number of personnel authorized to operator towboats, and could exacerbate the current shortage of licensed personnel.

It is most curious that the USCG indicates that ship tug personnel (called "harbor assist towing" by the USCG) must operate as a mate on a towing vessel for 12 months and pass an examination in order to broaden their route to include what a line boat operator needs. The USCG has it backwards. The ship tug personnel are the highest paid and have the tougher job. They are at the top of the food chain, not the bottom. No ship tug Master would stoop to sailing as mate for 12 months on a line boat (read two years working 30/30) to sail as a line boat master. The USCG has somehow missed the point!

Our recent national election has possibly further muddied the waters. On January 20, 2001, a White House Memorandum was issued to the heads of all agencies specifying that any final regulations not currently in effect should be temporarily delayed by 60 days until reviewed and approved by the new agency head appointed by President Bush. The Memorandum goes on to indicate that no new regulation can be issued until the same new agency head (in this case the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Norman Mineta) has approved the action.

The USCG is expected to apply for a exemption to the Memorandum to allow the implementation of the proposed towing rules changes and the correction to the regulations on the grounds that they are not final rules and that they relate to safety. It also seems possible that the amendment to "fix" the regulations could be delayed until well after the 1999 rules going into affect on May 21, 2001, without the promised and yet unknown regulation remedies.

The possibilities for significant negative impact seem high for both companies and mariners alike. Any reasonable people would conclude that the towboat licensing project should at least be shelved until all guidelines for implementation have been completed including any performance standards and correction of defects in the regulations. It seems reasonable that these problems be remedied at least six months or more before any implementation.

Charley Havnen is a Commander USCG Ret. His organization can help you with your vessel construction project, regulatory problems, vessel manning issues, procedure manuals, accident analysis or expert witness. His organization can do what you can't or don't want to do. He can be reached by contacting the Havnen Group (800) 493-3883 or (504) 394-8933, fax: (504) 394-8869.

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