Last year there was a meeting of the minds in Manila to hash out the latest major round of changes to the STCW Code, which are scheduled to “come into force” on January 1, 2012. That’s only five months away and counting down. Effective August 1st, the Coast Guard has published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) for Implementation of the Amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification & Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, and Changes to Domestic Endorsements, which is an updated and expanded version of the original NPRM from last year. Make no mistake, there are lots of very significant changes to STCW contained in this revised document and it is important for individual mariners to read the SNPRM and comment on them well before they get to the Final Rule-stage of implementation.
In the medical category here are two big ones:
- Issuance of “medical endorsements” good for 1 year for 1st-class pilots and those “acting as pilot” (all towing vessel deck officers), 2 years for those serving under an STCW endorsement, and 5 years for all other mariners.
- The requirement for annually submitting the results of your physical to the Coast Guard (for 1st-class Pilots and those “acting as pilot”).
Pain in the rear or not, having to send the results in to the Coast Guard was long overdue since their performance of due diligence before some medically-related disaster occurs is almost impossible without it. We’ve already had two very serious incidents because of this problem. One in San Francisco Bay, a major pollution incident when the M/V Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge, and the other a ferry crash in New York Harbor that killed 11 people and injured 70 more. Lesson learned: we don’t need anymore of these. On the other hand the Coast Guard is still mis-handling the medical process, sometimes very badly, by a lack of transparency and an inability to give mariners clear and timely answers. This needs to change too, and mariners have grown inpatient and angry while waiting for a reasonable level of service to be attained.
There are also many proposed changes to our domestic system. For the towing vessel community, here are the changes to be found in the “domestic endorsements” area that are solely applicable to our sector.
- Create a towing vessel endorsement restricted to ATB’s, to be called Towing Vessels (ATB).
- Create a towing vessel endorsement restricted to ship-assist tugs, to be called Towing Vessels (Harbor Assist).
- Eliminate the requirement for formal Coast Guard-issued qualification as a Towing Vessel Designated Examiners (TVDE’s) to complete Towing Officer’s Assessment Records (TOAR’s). This change would “allow mariners to serve as DE’s by virtue of their endorsement without any further approval process.”
- Create a new sub-classification of towing vessel endorsement (Master and Apprentice Mate/Steersman) to be called Towing Vessels (Utility) for what had formerly been known as “assistance towing” for recreational vessels.
The first two new endorsements are positive changes that will help the present situation by standardizing the sensible practice of limiting tug operators who have no experience with conventional towing operations. A full TOAR simply cannot be completed aboard most typical ATB’s. It has long since become a practical impossibility (for both mariners and operating companies) for ATB personnel to get the required additional experience on conventional tugs for completion of the TOAR, just as the opportunities for that are rapidly dwindling in the petroleum trade. This had caused an unnecessary advancement bottle-neck, which was informally solved by Coast Guard acceptance of slightly-modified TOAR’s for ATB’s that were company-specific. Formalizing this existing practice is a good idea.
Getting rid of the need for DE’s, however, is not a good idea. Consistency and quality-control have been improved since the implementation of the TOAR system, and Coast Guard-certified DE’s are the backbone of it. Towing isn’t like anything else and requires more of a mariner, both the trainee and the trainer. We don’t want to go backwards on this.
The Towing Vessel (Utility) endorsement has the potential to improve and fully professionalize the assistance towing industry, and that deserves support. But there will need to be some very clear limits placed upon what constitutes utility towing, as in size/horsepower limits on the utility towing vessels and size/tonnage limits on what they may tow. At what point does it cross the line and become regular towing? Failure to do this will certainly lead to the same kind of abuse that has already been occurring for years: the long-standing practice of assistance-towers working well beyond the scope of their licenses. In the past and into the present, this took the form of towing things other than disabled vessels. With a significantly expanded range of work potentially being legally opened up to them, the former assistance towers will be much more able to bite off far more than they can chew, with all of the associated safety issues that entails. This bears watching.
What follows may be a big step in repairing their reputation amongst working mariners, as long as it’s done right.
- “The Coast Guard proposes to add a provision for issuance of a ceremonial license, which reflects his or her existing domestic officer endorsements, and is suitable for framing. The addition of this optional license is being proposed in response to numerous requests from the public.”
Well, not for nothing, but there were plenty of public comments in support of this before they did away with the traditional paper license. It never fails to amaze me how the Coast Guard sometimes blindly squanders whatever good will it manages to build up with mariners by doing things that disappoint and anger us. Especially when it was all easily avoidable. They could have heeded the advice they received beforehand and missed out on all the bad mojo. Oh well, better late than never. However, let me define “done right.” It has got to be way better than the cheesy digital-download facsimile that you had to print yourself, which were made available last year. We want the real deal, printed on high-quality paper, with the raised stamp and everything, just like we had before the Merchant Mariner Credential was created. It’s understood that this takes time and resources to do, so we’ll gladly pay a fair price for it. There was never any argument about that. This will pay long-term dividends in improved mariner relations and the Coast Guard would be foolish to allow another stumble here.
And here’s a little doozy that they tried to slip in while no one was paying attention:
- “Possible changes to fee payment options, as proposed in § 10.219, which would eliminate the possibility of paying by cash or check.”
This one should be dead-on-arrival, since it is clearly illegal, at least as far as cash is concerned. Printed upon the face of all denominations of our paper currency, on the left-hand side, are the words “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” Neither the Coast Guard, nor anyone else, has the legal right to refuse cash (in all forms) issued by the Federal Reserve on behalf of our own government. The Coast Guard can’t arbitrarily change by regulation what Congress has not changed by law. Regulations must not contradict the law, and there is nothing unreasonable or illegal (for the relatively few who still do it) in being able to walk into the nearest R.E.C. and pay for the transactions with the formerly-almighty greenback, shaky though it may be these days While there are certainly efficiencies gained by doing it electronically, the claim for a need of “specially trained personnel” to handle cash is, literally, a Whopper. Burger King, and every gas station and convenience store in the land, seems to be plenty capable of handling significant amounts of cash with minimally-qualified workers who are paid very little. Are we to believe that the U.S. Coast Guard just can’t handle it? They must be kidding. In any case they ‘ll almost certainly do it anyway because it’s highly unlikely that anyone will sue them over it, the only real legal remedy available when government agencies break the law. Unless Congress puts a stop to it! Right…
Anyway, further analysis will be forthcoming. As of right now the deadline for the submission of comments is September 30, 2011. When you’ve read it through and had time to think about it, click here (for Federal Docket USCG-2004-17914) so that you can let your opinions be known.