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El Faro-inspired  bill to improve safety at sea heads to the President
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El Faro-inspired bill to improve safety at sea heads to the President

El Faro-inspired  bill to improve safety at sea heads to the President
Photo Credit: Stephanie Brown

El Faro-inspired bill to improve safety at sea heads to the President

Targeting problems raised by the sinking of Jacksonville-based cargo ship El Faro, the President will now consider a bill on maritime safety. 

The Senate passed the measure on Wednesday, and the House adopted it Thursday.

This comes nearly three years after the ship sank in Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 people on board. El Faro was heavily loaded, when it started taking on water while traveling between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. Federal investigators have concluded the ship over-corrected in its effort to balance a list and lost lube oil suction as a result. Without propulsion, with a substantial list, and dealing with the conditions around this major hurricane, the ship sank. 

GALLERY: Tributes to the El Faro crew

AUDIO: El Faro’s Captain describes “marine emergency”

Both the NTSB and a Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation examined the sinking, and faulted decision making by the Captain, in bringing the ship too close to the storm, as a primary reason for the sinking. The attorney for the Captain's widow has disputed those findings. There were many contributing factors identified by investigators as well, though, including not detecting longstanding deficiencies in inspections and insufficient safety management systems on board. The reports from both of those federal investigative bodies have led to this legislation, which is known as the “Hamm Alert Maritime Safety Act of 2018”, after one of the men who died in the sinking, and his family, who fought for the changes. 

FULL COVERAGE: The sinking of El Faro

Among the changes, the legislation requires the Commandant of the Coast Guard enter negotiations to amend international standards to require freight vessels be outfitted with high-water alarm sensors and float-free Voyage Data Recorders with emergency position indicating radio beacons. This addresses two concerns raised by federal investigators. First, the high-water alarm sensors will give the bridge a better awareness of water getting on board, because the sensor would be connected to both audible and visual alarms on the bridge. Second, a float-free VDR with an EPIRB will ideally be able to be more easily located and retrieved. It took two missions to find El Faro’s VDR, and a third to recover it from the wreckage on the ocean floor. Analysis of the more than 26 hours of data captured on the VDR proved to be invaluable in piecing together the final hours on board. 

IN DEPTH: El Faro’s VDR

IN DEPTH: Additional portions of El Faro’s VDR

The Commandant will also conduct a cost-benefit analysis of requiring VDRs capture internal telephone communication. For El Faro, the VDR only recorded sound on the bridge, so while it captured a substantial amount of audio, there is no documentation of what crew members were saying while speaking to someone on the bridge, if they weren’t on the bridge themselves. 

GALLERY: El Faro’s Voyage Data Recorder

To make it easier for a ship’s crew to anonymously report potential safety issues on board, this bill establishes an anonymous safety alert pilot program with a direct line of communication to the Coast Guard. With El Faro, there were questions raised on whether issues could be truly anonymously reported to the ship’s owner and operator, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and TOTE Services, because the phone was on the bridge and emails were not done on private computers. 

There are more requirements on timely and detailed weather forecasts in this bill- areas where the NTSB sought action before their investigation had even concluded. The main weather system used on El Faro, Bon Voyage System, had a duplicated hurricane forecast track that the ship used to track Hurricane Joaquin’s path in the hours ahead of the sinking. It also took hours for the forecast data to be processed and sent to the ship, through that system. The National Hurricane Center further said Hurricane Joaquin was an especially difficult storm to forecast. The bill doesn’t specify what the changes will look like, but generally requires ships get “timely synoptic and graphical chart weather forecasts” and timely advisories, when available. 

The Coast Guard will be ordered to conduct a review on openings, stability standards, and lifesaving equipment, through the bill. The investigations on this sinking showed some openings on the ship were used both as water-tight and weather-tight, which could have made them vulnerable points for taking on water. While it’s not believed by investigators that the crew would have been able to survive, even if they abandoned ship, they say the best chance for that would have been if the crew had enclosed lifeboats, as opposed to the open design allowed on El Faro, because of her age. Lifeboats are not explicitly addressed in the bill, but rather a review of “lifesaving equipment for mariners, including survival suits and life jackets”. 

There is another provision in the bill requiring search-and-rescue units procure equipment to mark any item that can’t be immediately retrieved with a radio or Automated Identification System beacon. The SAR operations after the sinking of El Faro located one body, but the remains were not immediately recovered, because crews had to go investigate a report of a waving survival suit, meaning a possible survivor. That survival suit was not located, and the beacon that was left on the remains did not work, and the crew was not able to locate the remains again. A SAR representative admitted during the investigation that those beacons were often faulty, but he said they were already in the process of upgrading. 

GALLERY: El Faro’s wreckage

The Coast Guard is also being ordered to review the documentation of “major conversions”. Some conversion work on El Faro was not classified as a “major conversion”, although investigators have since said it should have been. If it got that designation, the ship would have been required to adopt more modern standards, including with the type of lifeboats it had. 

Another area that saw substantial review under these investigations is the Alternate Compliance Program, which is the inspection protocol that El Faro was under and that’s still being used on commercial vessels currently. It allows alternate classification societies to do survey work on behalf of the Coast Guard, to eliminate the duplication of their inspections. The investigations in to this sinking showed the Coast Guard had become reliant on the ACS’s because of a shortage in their own resources and experience. Further, it was concluded that there was not proper oversight of this program by the Coast Guard, and that the ACS’s were not always operating as expected under the program in terms of the thoroughness of the surveys and experience of the surveyors. This bill will require improved training programs for the Coast Guard, relating to their oversight of ACP and third-party organizations. Another problem with ACP is the gaps between Coast Guard and ACS rules. That was previously addressed through a “Supplement”, but that was often lagging in updates, and there may be several different ones in place. This legislation would move toward one unified Supplement. 

The legislation further is requiring an audit of safety management systems, to ensure ships are safe at sea. A portion of safety management required everyone have a full and working knowledge of safety procedures on board, but testimony showed that Polish riding crew members who were on El Faro working to convert her for the Alaskan trade may not have received the full safety training required.

There will also be more training for steamship inspections and advanced journeyman inspectors.

GALLERY:Photos from the NTSB’s investigation of the El Faro sinking

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate, says the bill is designed to prevent a tragedy like this sinking from happening again. 

“The families of the El Faro crew deserve much of the credit for getting many of these potentially lifesaving measures through Congress,” he says. 

The House previously passed a bill that came from its own Committee work, but Nelson’s office says the Senate’s version is broader in addressing recommendations from both the NTSB and Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation. It is the Senate’s version that was ultimately adopted in the House as well, and sent to the President’s desk.

The bill text says, in 2017, there were more than 21,000 deficiencies issued to US commercial vessels, and “no sail” orders were issued to 2,500 US vessels- showing that this problem goes beyond the El Faro.

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