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The global implications of the El Faro investigator’s recommendations

The commandant of the US Coast Guard, Paul Zukunft has issued official comments following the final report and recommendations into the El Faro disaster in the US in 2015 where all 33 people onboard perished.

The finger of blame points in many directions, but so do the recommendations, which the US Admiral has mostly approved. Many of the recommendations include action at the IMO, the global regulatory body for shipping,  that could create greater oversight and levels of safety in international shipping.

The US Marine Board of Investigation report is a damning appraisal of a number factors that led to what it calls a preventable accident. In a 32-page report The USCG commandant said that while the master of the vessel is held responsible for sailing too close to Hurricane Joaquin, despite the recommendations from other navigators on board to take other routes, the shipowner Tote, the US class society ABS and the US Coast Guard itself were also found to be at fault.

The commandant’s comments focus on the recommendations that are in the report, mostly giving support or changes to training, the responsibility of ship operators and the role of classification as a recognized organization performing surveys and other services on behalf of the US Coast Guard.

While many factors contributed to this marine casualty, by far the most prominent was the master’s decision to sail the ship in close proximity to a hurricane. There were multiple opportunities to take alternate, safer routes as the storm approached. There was adequate information available regarding the threat posed by hurricane Joaquin, despite the unusually unpredictable nature of the storm’s path and intensity. There were also warnings and recommendations from the mates on successive watches to alter course to avoid the storm, but they were not heeded.

“The overriding authority of the master does not absolve TSI (Tote Services Inc) of their obligation under the ISM Code to provide such support. While TSI’s Operation Manual – Vessel (OMV) did address heavy weather, it placed the entire responsibility for weather planning and preparation on the master, which is inconsistent with fundamental stated objectives of the ISM Code. According to TSl’s former Designated Person Ashore (DPA), the company deliberately abandoned the practice of assisting masters with heavy weather voyage planning, storm system monitoring, and avoidance. Understanding that the company routinely provided liner service in an area prone to hurricanes during hurricane season, the decision to abandon such a crucial support system is irresponsible and inexcusable”

The US Commandant’s comments also point the finger at ABS in its capacity as a recognized organization for the US Coastguard

“The Coast Guard entrusts classification societies to carry out an extensive list of delegated functions that impact the safety of U.S. ships. The Coast Guard relies most heavily on the functions performed by the American Bureau of Shipping, an organization that provides vessel classification services for 92% of the U.S. deep draft fleet. Throughout the proceedings of the MBI, it was revealed that ABS failed to uncover or otherwise resolve longstanding deficiencies that adversely affect the safety and seaworthiness of vessels on multiple occasions.”

NTSB investigators examine open lifeboats of the El Faro sister ship, El Yunque. One recommendation is to end their use, in favour of totally enclosed lifeboats,

These are the recommendations from the report. Nearly all have been approved in full or in part, by the Coast Guard Commandant. Many include suggested action at the IMO:

  1. Create a regulatory initiative (US and IMO) to require high water audio and visual alarms, capable of providing audible and visual alarms on the navigation bridge, in cargo holds of dry cargo vessels.
  2. Review of US and international rules relating to ventilation and other hull openings in vessels.
  3. Phasing out of open lifeboats in favour of totally enclosed lifeboats.
  4. Regulatory requirement for watertight closures to have open/close indicators on bridge.
  5. Installation of CCTV in cargo spaces and steering gear.
  6. A regulatory initiative to require that a company maintain an onboard and shore side record of all incremental vessel weight changes (deadweight surveys) to track weight changes over time so that the aggregate total may be readily determined.
  7. Create international regulations for approval and review of cargo loading software.
  8. Update policies with flag authority and the Class/RO for review and approval of cargo loading software.
  9. Create a regulation to ensure voyage data recorders are ‘float free’ and equipped with position indication beacons (EPIRB). Additional suggestion to push IMO to include additional information on VDR such as all two-way conversations on telephones.
  10. Examination of the reliability of Self-Locating Datum Marker.
  11. Determine ability to attach position beacons around objects/ deceased found during a coast guard search and rescue operation.
  12. Push forward with rules to require that all personal flotation devices on oceangoing commercial vessels be fitted with a personal locator beacon.
  13. Develop a shipboard emergency alert system that would provide an anonymous reporting mechanism for crew members to communicate directly with the Designated Person Ashore or the Coast Guard.
  14. Clarification Flag State expectations for SMS implementation as derived through ISM.
  15. All cargo vessels have damage control information.
  16. Create a regulatory requirement for damage control training.
  17. Update damage control training.
  18. Evaluation of mariner training Institutions and Coast Guard merchant mariner credentialing process.
  19. Create a regulatory requirement for electronic records and periodic electronic transmission of records and data to shore from oceangoing commercial ships.
  20. Further prevention training course for prospective Coast Guard sector commanders and deputies.
  21. Develop more frequent oversight of approved classification societies or recognized organization.
  22. Regulatory revision of US supplements that exist for class societies.
  23. Create an annual report on domestic vessel compliance to improve class society accountability.
  24. Assess the effectiveness of class surveyor training programmes and create appropriate corrective actions when needed.
  25. Add a steam plant inspection course for Coast Guard and any RO surveyors and inspectors.
  26. Create additional “journeyman inspector” training course for audits of marine inspections and class surveyors conducting inspections on behalf of Coast Guard.
  27. A review of policies and procedures for making and documenting major conversion determinations, including use of the Precedence Principle.
  28. Review of current intact and damage stability standards to improve vessel survivability in extreme wind and sea conditions.
  29. Create a regulatory initiative to require that all existing cargo vessels meet the most current intact and damage stability standards. (Not agreed by commandant).
  30. Create a third-party oversight national center of expertise to conduct comprehensive and targeted oversight activities on all third-party organizations and class societies that perform work on behalf of the Coast Guard.
  31. Technical review of critical propulsion system components to determine operability at different vessel lists.






About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.