On 20 June 2016, a regulatory revolution was born when the U.S. Coast Guard published Subchapter M in the Federal Register. The regulations established new requirements for the design, construction, equipment, and operation of U.S. towing vessels, and were effective exactly one month later. The regulations were what American Waterways Operators (AWO) President and CEO Tom Allegretti described as “the most significant new regulation our industry has ever seen, with the potential to take safety and environmental stewardship to an unprecedented level.”1
The Public-Private Relationship
The government has cooperated with towing companies since September 1995, when the AWO trade association and then-Rear Admiral James C. Card of the U.S. Coast Guard signed “a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership” that later became a driving factor for future towing requirements.
The actual political process of creating Subchapter M regulations started nine years later with the approval of the 2004 Maritime Transportation Act, which formally reclassified towing vessels as vessels subject to inspection. The responsibility of inspecting towing vessels fell to the Coast Guard, now part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Under its current marine safety mission, the Coast Guard employs hundreds of marine inspectors and investigating officers all over the world to read and enforce international and domestic vessel regulations. This requires an organized process to educate inspectors who can dissect and understand the many intricacies involved with maritime law. Inspectors regularly attend vessels to verify safety equipment, machinery, emergency procedures, and administrative paperwork.
Twelve years after the 2004 Maritime Transportation Act, Subchapter M was added as a new chapter to the Code of Federal Regulations, applying to towing vessels moving oil or hazardous material in bulk, and those greater than 26 feet in length involved in pushing, pulling, or hauling cargo alongside. Having resources already strained over its multiple missions, how would the Coast Guard now handle the additional responsibility of inspecting a whole new towing industry? The answer came from unique options found within Subchapter M.
The New Deal
If the “M” in Subchapter M stands for anything, it should be “momentous.” For the first time, towing regulations would allow operators the option to choose how to be inspected by offering two options, after which the vessel would be given a certificate of inspection (COI) permitting it to operate.2
The first option includes the use of a towing safety management system (TSMS)—a combination of written policies and procedures packaged together into a safety management system (SMS) that uses systematic policies and procedures to report problems, ensure corrections, and prevent reoccurrences. Once created, a company formally adopts a SMS into its organization’s daily practices.
After implementing and proving satisfactory use of a SMS, Subchapter M allows approved third-party organizations (TPOs) to inspect vessels in lieu of Coast Guard marine inspectors. TPOs work with the Coast Guard’s Towing Vessel National Center of Expertise (TVNCOE) to obtain the skills and qualifications necessary to conduct vessel surveys, examinations, and audits.
Under this first option is the opportunity for towing companies to use their own internal auditors to complete the vessel surveys and exams with oversight by a TPO. By choosing to conduct its own internal surveys and exams, a company could drastically reduce time and costs associated with the inspections, and eliminate the additional workload on the part of the Coast Guard.
The second option offered by Subchapter M is the traditional route, which employs Coast Guard marine inspectors to attend vessels for inspection and enforcement. This option allows towing businesses to continue working without their own safety management systems. Each option has distinct advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the TSMS option is flexibility: if a company chooses to conduct internal surveys and examinations, they can do so with oversight from a TPO. If a company wants to forgo the responsibility of creating internal auditors, they can hire a TPO. While these nuances likely will have differences in cost, they still afford companies the option to decide how much oversight from a TPO they prefer.
The TSMS option brings with it the potential for conflicts of interest. Towing companies operate to generate corporate profits, and the implementation of a SMS may not take into account costs. Furthermore, negative conditions occur when internal auditors are too lenient, or are not supported by companies to take appropriate corrective actions.
In contrast, the traditional Coast Guard inspection option eliminates the need for a SMS and significantly reduces administrative burdens. The disadvantages to this option are the loss of control and the requirement to coordinate inspections with a federal agency.
Regulatory Red Tape
Subchapter M does face certain complications, least of which is the additional manpower necessary to conduct inspections. In today’s environment where resources are spread thin, this could be a major challenge. In addition, an effective TSMS also needs to be fully implemented. The American Waterways Operators offer a safety management system called the responsible carriers program (RCP), a TSMS that allows organizations to adopt and subscribe to a preapproved plan, eliminating the need to formally write an SMS. But this form of SMS does not mean full implementation or compliance with Subchapter M regulations. The RCP acknowledges this, stating, “While the objective of the Responsible Carrier Program is to enhance safety and environmental protection in the tugboat and towboat industry, no program can be considered a panacea that will completely eliminate injuries, accidents, or pollution incidents.
The pursuit of better, safer operations through continuous improvement must always be the industry’s goal.”3 If the towing industry wants to succeed, detailed policies and procedures, strict acceptance, and internal enforcement will be crucial. Third-party organizations and the Coast Guard must hold a high level of accountability during reviews of SMS surveys, examinations, and audits.
Finally, to eliminate misunderstandings, the Coast Guard must publish supplementary guidance on implementing Subchapter M. Historically, the Coast Guard has done this in documents called navigation and vessel inspection circulars (NVICs), which provide additional guidance to inspectors and industry personnel on how to interpret and understand regulations. A NVIC would help explain areas of Subchapter M such as what oversight from a TPO includes, and more clearly explain the options available to companies with visual diagrams. While NVICs are not law, when paired with Subchapter M they would significantly enhance proper application across the United States.
The Final Impact
Subchapter M is set to change the culture of the towing community forever. By creating a strong bipartisan relationship as early as 1995, the Coast Guard and the American Waterways Operators shattered preconceived thoughts of what regulations had to be. In lieu of only federally imposed regulators, the Coast Guard displayed exceptional self-awareness by acknowledging its limited resources and offering flexible options. With Subchapter M now effective, the U.S. towing industry and the Coast Guard must make preparations. If Subchapter M is going to succeed, full implementation and accountability of safety management systems must occur along with useful guidance such as NVICs. Despite the fact that “Subchapter M” may need additional enhancements, these regulations display the innovative tactics the Coast Guard is exploring in the 21st Century.
1. Statement of Thomas A. Allegretti, President and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, before the U.S. House of Representatives, 10 September 2013, www.americanwaterways.com/sites/default/files/legacy/index/MTR.pdf.
2. Options for documenting compliances to obtain a Certificate of Inspection, 46 C.F.R § 136.130 (a) (2016).
3. Responsible Carrier Program, 1 January 2016, American Waterways Operators, www.americanwaterways.com/sites/default/files/RCP Revision Final 1-20-16.pdf.
Lieutenant Ramos has worked as a marine inspector at Sector New York. Following his industry training, Lieutenant Ramos was assigned as the Chief of Inspections Department at Maritime Safety Unit Chicago.