Jacksonville, FL - The questions continue to surface over the special commercial vessel inspection program that was over El Faro and is still used for hundreds of ships currently sailing.
Through the course of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation in to the El Faro sinking, the Alternate Compliance Program has frequently come under the microscope. The program was conceived as a way to acknowledge the work of independent class societies and alleviate the inspection burden on the Coast Guard by letting those societies act as their agent for inspections. The first session in February highlighted potential issues with the amount of oversight the Coast Guard maintains on the program. The oversight questioned continued through this two-week session, but a lack of resources has been the greater concern.
Now, one of the men who oversees the program for the Coast Guard says the lacking resources are directly contributing to some holes in the system.
US Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards Office Chief Captain Benjamin Hawkins spent most of his testimony focused on a part of the Alternate Compliance Program known as the Supplement. The Supplement bridges the gap between government regulations and class society rules to ensure the surveys being performed on commercial vessels are comprehensive- essentially addressing any conflict in the procedures and adding in any component that is otherwise left out.
The American Bureau of Shipping, which does the surveys for El Faro, issues annual updates to their rules. Hawkins says they have issues keeping up with that and the impact it has on the Supplement.
“The simple fact of the matter is that we are strained by resources to keep up with those reviews. So we have supplements that are pending review, we just haven’t gained a lot of ground on that,” he says.
Updating a Supplement requires reviewing not just the new document, but all of the recent changes in regulations at the federal and even international level to ensure the new version is fully compliant.
“The reality is, I think over the period of time, the challenge of keeping up with the annual review of those supplements proved to be much more difficult and onerous than maybe was conceived at the outset of the Alternate Compliance Program,” Hawkins says.
As a result, he says there are gaps.
One example of a hole they’ve been working on is how to consider applying supplement updates retroactively. According to Hawkins, the program right now says a vessel should be surveyed using the Supplement in effect when it was enrolled in ACP, and that should be the version it uses for its entire life. That doesn’t account for any changes that are made in subsequent Supplements- including ones that could address a conflict or missing component with the one in use.
Another potential issue is the control the Coast Guard maintains. The Board has heard that ABS was actually using a more updated Supplement for its work on El Faro than the one in effect when it was enrolled. While Hawkins believes this may ultimately equate to higher oversight out of the newer guidelines, he says it’s not the protocol, and something his office has to review.
Additionally, Hawkins says they’re constrained to even do tasks like keeping a website detailing the program properly updated. In fact, a CGMBI Technical Advisor had pulled several documents from the website to question Hawkins about, but he acknowledged they were outdated, and not still in use.
After saying gaps do, in fact, exist, Hawkins was asked how he’s addressing them and his concerns with the program overall.
“As a whole, all of the offices and directorates at headquarters that are involved in the administration of the Alternate Compliance Program are looking at the program right now,” he says.
That review includes focusing on procedures around the Supplement, what powers they delegate, how the program is implemented and more. He says they’re taking a “holistic” approach in order to try to identify all problems with the program, but thinks the challenge will continue to be how many resources they have and where those resources should be dedicated.
In the meantime, Hawkins believes they have a good working relationship with the class societies like ABS that are partners in ACP. He further says that, when taken as a whole, he believes ACP is compliant with all required laws and policies.