As the readers of this blog are well aware, I can be very critical of the way the U.S. Coast Guard and, more specifically, the marine safety branch, which at its highest levels steadfastly refuses to engage with mariners in any way that might really amount to anything, deals with its duties of superintending merchant mariners and administering the marine safety program. Our presence, under-represented though we are, on the Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) is tolerated only grudgingly and our opinions are generally disregarded. There is a long and shameful history of ignoring mariners whenever possible in the industry’s regulatory processes that have been and still are dominated almost completely by industry trade associations like the American Waterways Operators and the Offshore Marine Services Association, who’ve been known to use their serious clout with the Coast Guard to push questionable safety standards and run roughshod over mariners concerns time and again. But fortunately there is more, much more, to the Coast Guard than just marine safety/inspection and mariner licensing (credentialing). I’m very happy to provide an example of what can happen when people within the Coast Guard reach out sincerely to work with mariners in solving a safety problem that affects everyone.
Over the last winter we experienced a debilitating and dangerous rash of false DSC-alerts on our VHF-FM radios that seriously compromised navigation and operational safety in New York Harbor. I subsequently wrote about it twice in my monthly WorkBoat Magazine columns of January and February 2010. It was not long before I was contacted directly (via email) by Mr. Joe Hersey, the chief of the Spectrum Management and Telecommunications Policy Division at C.G. Headquarters in Washington, D.C. During a subsequent phone call he explained that, as of March 25, 2009, the F.C.C. had mandated that all certified DSC-equipped radios must have a disabling feature. Unfortunately, there was necessarily a lag between the date of the mandate and the ability of the manufacturers to actually comply with it. There is also the problem of the many radios already in existence that were approved prior to that date and are still in use, potentially for many years to come.
He was most interested in gathering information on the specific models of DSC radios that have no ability to be disabled when necessary so that a list could be compiled and the manufacturers approached to fix the problem. I duly informed him that our ICOM IC-M600 series were giving us fits. We’ve got a mix of model #’s 602, 603, and 604 on board in the upper/lower pilot houses and the dog house, and they are otherwise fine radios. But the inability to shut down the DSC-alerts was just killing us in a place as jam packed with radio and vessel traffic as New York Harbor.
I told Mr. Hersey that I would gladly volunteer my writing space, both in my monthly columns in the magazine and the new WorkBoat blogs, as well as here on Towmasters, to keep mariners informed on this and any other issue of importance that comes up, now and in the future. He told me that would be very helpful and that a safety alert would be in the works. As a result of this exchange I received an email from him yesterday afternoon announcing that the Coast Guard had just published a safety alert, #02-10, that specifically “alerts” mariners and operating companies of the potential dangers and what to do about them. It read as follows:
“Mr. Milton, a Coast Guard Safety Alert describing the problem you described was issued today. We’ve also been in touch with a number of manufacturers, many of whom have or should have a fix available.
We now have an open line of communication that can be utilized whenever and as often as needed to help resolve issues involving radio or telecommunications. It’s really nice to be involved with the Coast Guard in doing something for the common good for a change, instead of being forced to fight with or harshly criticize them for shoving mariners aside and treating us like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. My duties as a co-director of the MTVA don’t often allow for much else, unfortunately. Perhaps this can serve as a good example of a cooperative effort that should be replicated frequently in the realms of marine safety and “credentialing,” but I’m surely not holding my breath.
I’ll also take this opportunity to point out what should be obvious to everyone, particularly the NMEA and the various manufacturers: usability is everything to mariners, particularly on vessels with only one officer on watch like towing vessels. To achieve real success with this fix, as the disabling feature is added to new radios two key elements must be met: the ability to disable and enable the DSC-alert feature must be very simple and the radio’s status (enabled or disabled) must be clearly visible at all times, day and night. If this becomes a function that is controlled by having to navigate into numerous menus and sub-menus and/or we can’t tell the status without doing the same then mariners will give your radios a grade of F- and will avoid them like the plague. Any electronics whose vital and often-used functions are buried in menus/sub-menus is, by definition, user-unfriendly and therefore more of a hindrance than a help. Note to NMEA and the manufacturers: please pay attention to this. The last thing you want is having large numbers of working mariners complaining to their port captains not to buy your products anymore because they are a pain to use.
Any DSC-related questions for the Coast Guard should be directed to Mr. Russell Levin at (202) 475-3555 or Russell.S.Levin@uscg.mil, and he is also the point of contact for reporting the make/model of radios that don’t have the DSC-alert disablement feature. All mariners are encouraged to report this important information, preferably as a group via your company’s port captain or safety manager, to Mr. Levin as soon as possible. Notwithstanding any experiences you may have had with DSC alerts, if it doesn’t explain in the radio’s manual how to disable them then you can assume that it probably won’t. For much more information on all things DSC please visit the the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation Center’s Digital Selective Calling page.
All of the Coast Guard’s safety alerts and lessons-learned relevant to the towing industry are compiled here for your easy reference.