Full report here (pdf) The Coast Guard’s Need for Experienced Marine Safety Personnel
September 19, 2019
For at least four decades, Congress has been concerned about the Coast Guard’s ability to maintain an adequate staff of experienced marine safety personnel to ensure that vessels meet federal safety standards. The 2015 sinking of the U.S.-flag cargo ship El Faro during a hurricane near the Bahamas with the loss of 33 lives renewed attention to the Coast Guard’s persistent difficulty with hiring and training a marine safety workforce with technical knowledge of vessel construction and accident investigation, as the safety inspections of the vessel were found to have been inadequate. In the Hamm Alert Maritime Safety Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-265), Congress directed the Coast Guard to brief congressional committees of jurisdiction on its efforts to enhance its marine inspections staff. In the Frank LoBiondo Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-282), Congress requested a report from the Coast Guard detailing the courses and other training a marine inspector must complete to be considered qualified, including any courses that have been dropped from the training curriculum in recent years.
Congress’s concern about the Coast Guard’s inspection staff comes at a time when the agency’s vessel inspection workload is increasing by about 50% because towing vessels have been added to its responsibilities. Additionally, Congress has been increasing the agency’s role in fishing vessel safety. Adding to the Coast Guard’s safety responsibilities is the construction of several liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals as well as the increasing use of LNG as ship fuel.
Vessel safety inspections are especially critical for the U.S.-flag fleet, like the El Faro, because a majority of it is much older than the 15 to 20 years of age at which ships in the foreign-flag worldwide oceangoing fleet are typically scrapped. Over half of the U.S.-flag commercial fleet is over 20 years old; the El Faro had been in service for 40 years. Vessels that transport cargo or passengers domestically (from one U.S. point to another U.S. point) must be built in the United States, as required by the Jones Act. The comparatively high cost of domestic ship construction encourages ship owners to keep Jones Act vessels in service well beyond their normal retirement age. In general, older vessels are believed to have a higher risk of structural defects and to require more intensive inspection.
Currently, the Coast Guard’s marine inspection staff consists of 533 military and 138 civilian personnel, while its accident investigation staff consists of 120 military staff and 38 civilians. As a military organization, the Coast Guard frequently rotates its staff among various duty stations, so personnel may not develop the knowledge and experience required of a proficient marine inspector or investigator. A common perception inside the agency that marine safety is an area that retards promotion also may be thwarting efforts to boost this mission’s workforce.
The Coast Guard recently has stated its intention to improve the quality of its inspection workforce and to make marine safety an attractive long-term career path by extending promotion potential. However, its recent statements are similar to statements made 10 years ago, when some Members of Congress advocated transferring the marine safety function to a civilian agency. It is unclear what the agency has accomplished over the last decade regarding its inspection workforce. Government audits dating to 1979 have been consistently critical of the proficiency level of Coast Guard inspectors and accident investigators. Reorganizing the marine safety function under a civilian agency, perhaps as an element of a larger reorganization of navigation functions in the federal government, might improve the quality of safety inspections and investigations, but other federal agencies with transportation-related safety inspection workforces have had similar issues with retaining experienced personnel.