Fostering a successful relationship with your local Coast Guard marine inspectorJul 1, 2014 10:25 AM
Lieutenant Sara M. Ellis-Sanborn, US Coast Guard Atlantic Area, Portsmouth, VA
Bobby Clinton III, Port Safety Officer, McAllister Towing of Virginia, Inc., Norfolk, VA
Captain Wayne E. Bratton, President, Trident Marine Corporation, Cleveland, OH
Transfer season has come and gone at your servicing Coast Guard Marine Inspections shop and you’re wondering what the Coast Guard will have in store for you for the next few years. This is a common theme regardless of the type of commercial vessel you operate. Likewise, the newly arrived Marine Inspector is wondering what this new fleet will have in store for him/her. While our missions may differ – the vessel owner/operator, who desires to increase profits as much as possible while reducing out-of-pocket costs, and the Marine Inspector, who is responsible for ensuring compliance with regulations – we both have the same goal: safety….safety of the vessel, crew and passengers, the waterways, and the environment. What better way to achieve our shared goal than by developing a successful relationship which better enables us to achieve our respective missions?
Towing Vessel Perspective (Bobby Clinton):
In days gone by, a visit from your local Coast Guard Marine Inspectors would be grounds for fear and loathing, easily turning a bustling waterfront facility into a ghost town. But time has brought change to an industry that had long resisted and resented.
The maritime industry is fraught with danger, even on the best of days, but a new age of awareness is upon us. Most mariners that have spent any time in the industry have lost friends and shipmates to circumstances and conditions that no longer exist in our industry today, thanks in no small part to the growing partnership between the Coast Guard and the maritime industry. The continued effort required to make our waterfront a safe and environmentally friendly place to do business is a team endeavor, and getting to know your local Coast Guard Marine Inspectors is key. Asking the Coast Guard to attend drills at your facility or offering your vessels as training platforms for them goes a long way in the development and maintenance of a strong and healthy relationship with the Marine Inspectors in your area.
In Virginia’s Port of Hampton Roads, the connection between our industry and its regulators gets closer and more productive every day. Groups like the Virginia Maritime Association and the American Waterways Organization, to name just two, are supported and chaired by members of our maritime community. They often sponsor events that help bring the two entities closer together. By discussing new legislation with industry participants and introducing its newest members, the Coast Guard has done a great job of bridging the regulatory gap that existed years ago. In Hampton Roads, the Coast Guard and Virginia Maritime Association co-sponsor Industry Day. Both groups get together for a day of fun and learning, from boat handling and line throwing contests, to safety demonstrations and guest speakers. It’s a great time to meet and greet the Coast Guard men and women in your area, who will be visiting your boats and facilities for everything from vessel inspections to investigating incidents. Seeing a familiar face and shaking hands with someone that you may have met at one of these functions helps to make the visit a civilized one.
Another great opportunity is the Coast Guard’s Industry Training program. This program allows a company to embed into their operation a Coast Guard representative, whose job is to get a better understanding of how the business side of industry works. We were participants in the program and were exceptionally lucky to bring Sara to our offices. It was a pleasure to visit a vessel and have her point out issues that could be called into question, should we be inspected. Her ability to provide reason behind the regulation and steer the crew to the precise location of relevant passages in the, sometimes mind-boggling, CFRs was truly valuable. The program helped us to understand the Coast Guard how-and-why and the result was easily seen in our internal audits and vessel inspections. The bottom line is getting to know the Coast Guard men and women in your area, taking advantage of any meet-and-greet functions available, and getting involved in local training and exercises will greatly benefit your facilities and your vessels. Times have surely changed!
Passenger Vessel Perspective (Wayne Bratton):
Over the course of my 57 years as a credentialed mariner, I have 54 years of experience with marine inspectors and I’ve gone through countless inspections, both good and bad. What I’ve gleaned from them is a set of rules for successfully accomplishing an inspection:
1) Apply for an inspection in a timely manner.
2) Prior to the inspection, discuss and ask about any new changes or special requirements you need to be ready for.
3) Do your homework! Know regulations as well as, or better than, the inspector. Know and understand regulations for your class of vessel versus other classes (e.g., T-boats versus K-boats); inspectors examine many classes of vessels and can occasionally get mixed up between them.
4) On the day of the inspection, sit down with the inspectors over a cup of coffee and doughnuts and discuss the inspection procedure. Disclose any known deficiencies at this time.
5) Have the ship’s papers laid out, in order, and ready for inspection.
6) Have one crewmember assigned to each inspector. Do not allow inspectors to roam around the vessel unaccompanied.
7) Have sufficient staff, parts, and spares available during the inspection, in order to be able to effect immediate correction of any deficiency discovered. However, if you’re issued an 835, recognize that this allows time to review and discuss the situation, and to make the proper correction at a later time.
8) Treat each other with respect. Everyone is just doing their job. New inspectors are trying to learn their job and experienced industry personnel can help them become knowledgeable inspectors. Experienced inspectors can teach novice crewmembers how to conduct a complete and effective inspection.
9) If an issue arises, stay calm! Its only business. Do not get into an argument; the matter at hand is usually just an issue of interpretation. Do not alienate the inspector. Discuss it together with the senior or most experienced inspector. If you cannot agree, take it to the Commanding Officer. This is where you need to know and be able to cite the regulation you believe applies and clarify how it defines your position.
In closing, at the end of the inspection it is extremely important that the inspector and the inspected conclude on good terms. Hopefully you end the inspection in agreement; if not, have a procedure or set of agreed upon remedies in place that will enable agreement at a near future time. Inspections are not always pleasant, and at times you will have to work kinks out of a new inspector, but keep in mind that both sides are working to ensure the safe and efficient flow of maritime commerce.
Coast Guard Perspective (Lt. Sara Ellis-Sanborn):
Marine inspections is, in my opinion, a customer service-oriented job. Yes, we’re there to enforce the regulations, but we’re also providing a service to members of industry. We’re there as advocates for those who are maltreated by their Masters or vessel owners. We’re there to ensure commercial vessels operate safely, reducing the frequency of marine casualties that jeopardize lives, vessels, and the environment. We’re there to verify mariners commercially plying US waters are appropriately credentialed, ensuring the continued safety of those onboard, the public, the environment, and waterside infrastructure. In other words, we are, like you, key participants in the effort to ensure the safety of your commercial vessel. As good customer service is vital to this effort, I’m offering three best practices which I believe all Marine Inspectors should employ to meet the needs of industry.
Any good customer service is founded on effective communication. When a member of industry asks a question, we should devote our energy and effort to answering that question; if the answer isn’t known, then research, research, and research some more! If that fails, ask someone more knowledgeable for assistance. The answer you provide should be timely, clearly written or stated, and backed up with cites. If timeliness isn’t possible, let that person know that you’re still working the issue and will keep in touch. I have encountered Marine Inspectors who believe it’s not their job to educate industry on the regulations. I’ve also heard mariners complain that the regulations can often be so difficult to understand that it’s no wonder their vessels aren’t always in compliance. I agree with both points – it’s not a part of a Marine Inspector’s duties to educate industry and regulations are indeed hard to understand, never mind locate. But answering the questions of the maritime industry is a courtesy we should all be providing because, in the end, it will not only aid us by reducing deficiencies (and subsequent marine casualties) within the fleet, it will make the maritime realm a safer environment for all who operate within it.
Today’s economy hasn’t been particularly kind to the shipping industry – money’s tight for many Coast Guard-inspected vessels. Often, the deficiencies issued to vessels by Marine Inspectors are COSTLY. It’s easy to forget this when we’re not the ones holding the checkbook or credit card to pay for correcting these deficiencies. We should be open to the creative proposals offered by vessel owners/operators in response to these costly deficiencies. Provided safety is not compromised and your Captain of the Port is onboard, carefully consider all available options before denying a proposal that will lead to a complete halting of operations.
This is the most important thing any Marine Inspector can do, so listen up…..when interacting with industry, give them their due courtesy and respect! Speak as candidly as possible; it’s always better than appearing to be hiding something. It may take a while (a long while, in some cases), but your efforts will eventually reflect positively back on you, as the Marine Inspector, and the Coast Guard. You’ll find that members of industry are comfortable coming to you for assistance, trust your judgment, and are open to discussing concerns they may have previously not voiced to other Marine Inspectors. The best inspections I’ve had were ones that involved lots of laughter and banter back and forth. They ended with warm handshakes even as I was handing over a list of deficiencies to be corrected. That wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t already in place a strong relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
As stated by RADM Joel D. Sipes (Ret), “Regrettably, success is intangible because it cannot be measured easily. Where some Coast Guard missions can be measured handily in terms of lives and property actually saved or in numbers of oil spills or related marine casualties, the prevention aspects of marine safety cannot be counted so readily. It would be ludicrous to measure success in terms of the volumes of existing regulations, by deficiencies found or violations written for noncompliance. The real Challenge for Coast Guard personnel is maintaining an environment safe at all times from any unforeseen incidents and, at the same time, ensuring that commerce is not impeded….Besides being a Challenge, Commercial Vessel Safety also is a process involving both the regulators and the regulated. It is a process designed and effected by people. Owners and Operators of vessels are considered to be the ‘customer’ of the Coast Guard.”
In my, Bobby, and Wayne’s words: this is the start of a new relationship between you and your Coast Guard Marine Inspector – why not make it a beautiful and long-lasting one?