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Remarks before the North American Ferry Conference and Trade Show, Delray Beach, FL
Mark V. Rosenker
North American Ferry Conference and Trade Show, Delray Beach, FL

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to have the opportunity to be with you today.

I would like to talk about three things today. First, I would like to tell you a little about the Safety Board, especially its mission and role in maritime safety. Next, I would like to summarize the importance of some recent marine investigations, including an update on the Staten Island Ferry accident. And, finally, I would like to share some thoughts on short sea shipping.

The National Transportation Safety Board was established by statute in 1966 as an agency within the Department of Transportation. In 1974, the Safety Board became a completely independent agency. The Board’s mission is to determine the probable cause or causes of selected transportation accidents and “… to promote transportation safety by conducting independent accident investigations and by formulating safety improvement recommendations.” In plain language, the Board exists for the sole purpose of making transportation safer.

The Independent Safety Board Act of 1974 gave the Board authority to investigate major marine casualties, but it did not define the term “major marine.” When Congress set up the Safety Board, it recognized that the Coast Guard had been investigating marine accidents for years, going all the way back to the Steamboat Inspection Service, which was established before the Civil War. Congress, in effect, allowed the Safety Board and the Coast Guard to decide how they would work together. The result was the development of joint regulations, which are set forth in 49 CFR part 850, providing for Safety Board participation in Coast Guard investigations, and for the Safety Board to conduct investigations completely separate from the Coast Guard under Safety Board regulations. The joint regulations define major marine accidents as those resulting in:

  • Loss of six or more lives;
  • Loss of a mechanically propelled vessel of 100 or more gross tons;
  • Property damage initially estimated at $500,000 or more; or
  • Serious threat to life, property, or the environment from hazardous materials.

Under the regulations, the Coast Guard makes an initial investigation of each accident to determine if it is a major marine accident, then notifies the Safety Board. This usually results in timely notification of a major marine accident. However, the Safety Board’s communication center, which is staffed 24/7, sometimes finds out about accidents even before Coast Guard headquarters.

In September 2002, the Chairman of the Safety Board and the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard worked out an arrangement to determine which agency would take the lead in any particular investigation. The arrangement was formalized in a memorandum of understanding. If the Safety Board takes the lead, the Coast Guard participates in the investigation as a party.

Major marine accidents the Safety Board might choose to investigate include the following:

  • A passenger vessel accident that places passengers or crewmembers at serious risk, for example, fires, collisions, sinkings, or groundings. (An example is the catastrophic capsizing and sinking of the uninspected small passenger vessel Ethan Allen on Lake George, New York, a little over a month ago.)
  • A vessel accident that seriously threatens port facilities, for example, striking a permanently moored vessel or high-occupancy waterfront facility. (The ramming of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis Harbor by barges in tow of the Anne Holly in April 1998 caused $11 million in damages and sent 50 people to the hospital for examination or treatment. The Anne Holly was attempting to transit St. Louis Harbor while towing 12 loaded and 2 empty barges in darkness and under high current and flood conditions.)
  • A fatal marine accident involving other transportation modes, such as railway or highway. (An example is the May 2002 ramming by the US towboat Robert Y. Love of the I-40 highway bridge over the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, which resulted in the loss of 14 lives.)

The safety accomplishments resulting from our marine safety investigations and recommendations include improvements in lifesaving, communications between vessels, fire safety standards for passenger cruise vessels, stronger training requirements for seafarers, and the carriage of voyage data recorders. I might mention a few specific examples:

  • Lifesaving. One simple device that is now required is the EPIRB or electronic position indicating radio beacon. The EPIRB gives early warning and the precise location of an accident such as a sinking. The Safety Board had pushed for this device for several years, and it has saved many lives.
  • Bridge-to-bridge radio telephones. The fledgling Safety Board in 1969 urged the Department of Transportation to vigorously support legislation for bridge-to-bridge radiotelephones as a result of a safety study of collisions. It took another 3 years for the law to be passed.
  • Bridge resource management (BRM). BRM was an outgrowth of aviation’s cockpit resource management. It is an excellent example of adopting a system for improving safety from the experience of another mode. In 1991 and 1993, after investigating a series of accidents involving conning and piloting problems, we recommended that the Coast Guard require BRM for deck watch officers and federal pilots, and to propose to the International Maritime Organization international requirements for BRM training. Today, BRM training is a required part of the international Seafarers’ Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping Code (STCW).
  • Voyage Data Recorders (VDRs). Since the 1970s, the Safety Board has promoted the use of event recorders on ships to the Coast Guard and to the IMO through the Coast Guard. VDRs will provide incontrovertible facts and data to help us reconstruct accidents. I’m sure you will all agree that obtaining accurate factual information from VDRs will be of great help in determining the cause of an accident and in developing meaningful safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents.

The IMO requires that all new ships and most existing ships above 3,000 gross tons on international voyages must be fitted with VDRs.

When a major marine accident is reported, the Safety Board decides whether to investigate, depending upon the issues involved. At current staffing levels, the Board is able to investigate about 20 percent of the 20 to 40 major marine accidents that are reported annually.

The Safety Board has investigated more than 200 major marine accidents and has issued nearly 2,000 marine safety recommendations. The recommendations have been addressed to various maritime organizations, including vessel operating companies, marine associations, classification societies, the International Maritime Organization, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Although the Safety Board does not have authority to regulate or to require recipients to implement our recommendations, we enjoy an acceptance rate of about 75%.

A recent accident investigation that received widespread attention involved the Staten Island Ferry Andrew J. Barberi. On October 15, 2003, the Barberi, a passenger ferry operated by the New York City Department of Transportation, struck a concrete maintenance pier at St. George, Staten Island, and tore a 210-foot-long gash into the main deck. The ferry had 5 crewmembers and an estimated 1,500 passengers on board. Eleven passengers died and 70 were injured. Damages totaled more than $8 million, including repair costs of $6.9 million for the Barberi and $1.4 million for the pier.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the accident was the assistant captain’s unexplained incapacitation and the failure of the New York City Department of Transportation to implement and oversee safe, effective operating procedures for its ferries. Contributing to the cause of the accident was the failure of the captain to exercise his command responsibility over the vessel by ensuring the safety of its operations.

In the Safety Board’s opinion, the serious safety deficiencies in the Staten Island Ferry operations that led to the accident could have been addressed by an aggressive safety management system. A safety management system is a structured, documented system developed to enhance the safe operation of vessels, to prevent human injury or loss of life, and to avoid damage to the environment. Ship owners and operators are encouraged to use a safety management system to resolve safety problems before casualties or incidents occur rather than to simply comply with regulations imposed from outside.

Safety management systems are mandatory for U.S.-flag vessels on international voyages. The Federal regulations, however, do not apply to U.S. vessels that operate on domestic waters, including the Staten Island Ferry and most other ferry operations in the country. However, this may be changing, as Congress has mandated that the Coast Guard develop safety management system regulations for domestic towing vessels.

According to the National Ferry Database, ferries operate in 40 of the 50 States and in some territories. Statistics from the American Public Transportation Association show that ferries operated by 42 agencies carried nearly 58 million passengers in 2002 and that annual ferry ridership exceeds 1 million in five urban areas (Seattle, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston). The largest ferry system in the United States, in terms of both ridership and vessel size, is the Washington State Ferries, which is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The ferries operate under a comprehensive safety management system that specifies procedures for the entire fleet, for each vessel, and for each route. The five largest ferry systems are: Washington State Ferries; Staten Island Ferry; San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority (currently has no authority over existing commuter ferry operations); Louisiana Department of Transportation, Crescent City Connection Division; and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Harbor Express and Boston Harbor Cruises).

A safety management system necessitates a cultural change in an organization so that the safety of operations is the objective behind every action and decision by both those who oversee procedures and those who carry them out. The system leads to standardized and unambiguous procedures for each crewmember, during both routine and emergency operations. Duties and responsibilities are specified for each staff member and for standard and emergency operations. Supervisory and subordinate chains of command are also delineated.

Since the Andrew J. Barberi accident, the New York City Department of Transportation has indicated to the Safety Board that it is implementing a safety management system for its ferries and expects to have the system approved and in place by December 2005.

Every day, we at the Safety Board deal with accidents that could have been avoided. Safety, like liberty, requires constant vigilance.

The financial benefits of a corporate safety culture for safety equipment, trained and qualified individuals, good crew work-rest cycles, and reliable equipment far outweigh the financial losses of an accident. An accident results not only in damage costs, lawsuits, and lost revenues, but also in the distrust of the public by those who use your services.

As our highways become more congested, as trade increases, and as rail lines are overburdened, I believe that the nation’s marine transportation system will become an alternative to ground transport of people and products, much as it already is in Europe.

The United States is the world’s leading trading nation and our international trade is projected to at least double by 2020. Short sea shipping, which is commercial waterborne transportation that does not transit an ocean, uses inland and coastal waterways to move commercial freight from major domestic ports to its destination. Vessels operate 365 days a year delivering raw materials to manufacturing plants, petroleum to refineries, and fuel to utilities. They move agricultural and mineral commodities to export terminals and the essentials of every day life to millions of Americans.

Promoting the use of waterways is one method of easing congestion on our rail and highway systems. Currently, passenger ferries transport more than 134 million Americans annually on domestic waterways and over 1 billion tons of cargo and 433 million tons of crude and refined petroleum is moved by domestic shipping.

The vessel system most often proposed for short sea shipping is commonly called a “freight ferry.” Freight ferries are usually categorized as high-speed, fast, or regular, and most in service today are considered regular ferries. In order to meet level-of-service requirements, high-speed or fast ferries would likely be used for short sea shipping. Generally, a high-speed ferry would be expected to complete 1-1/2-2 round-trips in a day and a fast ferry would be expected to complete 1 round-trip in a day. Each round-trip would include two voyages and two port handlings.

Remember that in our domestic waterways, ships are often forced to have close encounters. Unlike airplanes that have the luxury of operating in three dimensions, ships must operate safely in only two, which are confined by the geometry of the waterway. When two airplanes are on a collision course, one goes up and the other goes down by prearrangement. When two ships approach each other in a narrow winding channel, they have very limited room to the right or left, which is often the only practical option for collision avoidance.

As traffic increases on our waterways, so will the potential hazards. The possibility of mechanical failure, hostile environmental conditions, human error, and organizational failures affecting safety must be anticipated, and safeguards must be developed and implemented. The better this is done, the safer the carrier will be, and the accident statistics will reflect those conditions.

As you may surmise, I am proud to be a part of the Safety Board and I could speak longer, but I believe I have covered most of the points I wanted to mention. Again, I thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.