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Coast Guard Commandant Gives Hint of Emerging Policies at DC Propeller Club Meeting

Coast Guard Commandant ADM Thad Allen addressed the Propeller Club in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. His talk, centering generally on the Coast Guard's Marine Safety program, gave real indications as to the direction the nation’s fifth, uniformed and armed branch will go in the months and years ahead. The past nine months have not been easy ones for the Coast Guard, the leaders of which have faced intense scrutiny over the failures of the Deepwater recapitalization program and now the perceived shortcomings of their marine safety and regulatory oversight responsibilities.

During his address, Allen gave away few real details of his plans for the future overhaul of the Coast Guard’s marine safety missions. Today, he said, the Coast Guard ensures the safety of maritime transportation and commerce through a layered, interwoven system of authorities, compliance, collaboration, enforcement and public dialogue. The unprecedented growth of the maritime industry in terms of both emerging technologies and numbers of working platforms has not only taxed the system currently in place, but have also exponentially increased their workload with the added security threats from abroad. These dynamics lead to a greater demand for Coast Guard marine safety services and call for a renewed focus on this core Coast Guard mission.

In explaining the way forward, Allen told his industry audience that the Coast Guard had taken steps to improve this system, but also acknowledged that much more must be done. He also said that he was directing the development of a strategy that provides a vision and roadmap for improving the effectiveness, consistency and responsiveness of the Coast Guard Marine Safety program to promote safe, secure and environmentally sound maritime commerce. Through this policy, he hopes to reinvigorate industry partnerships, improve mariner credentialing services, bolster inspector and investigator capacity, improve technical competencies and expand rulemaking capability to ensure that current and future industry needs are met. He vowed that the Coast Guard would develop metrics to continually assess the progress towards achieving marine safety goals and objectives.

The Coast Guard’s new strategy, which Allen says will be developed in consultation with industry partners, will include specific actions (some of which it claims are already underway) to improve marine safety mission effectiveness:

1. Improve Marine Safety Capacity, Competency and Performance

• Increase marine inspector and investigator capacity.
• Strengthen marine inspection and investigation consistency through addition of civilian positions.
• Increase accessions from U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and maritime institutions.
• Strengthen Marine Safety career paths.
• Expand professional Marine Safety training and education.
• Expand opportunities for maritime industry training.
• Enhance engineering capacity for plan review, policy and standards development.

2. Enhance Service Delivery to Mariners and Industry Customers

• Establish Centers of Excellence.
• Improve information technology systems.
• Increase rulemaking capacity to meet regulatory implementation.
• Improve credentialing through greater efficiency, transparency and capacity.

3. Expand Outreach and Advisory Mechanisms for Industry and Communities

• Establish Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety, Security, and Stewardship.
• Establish a national council of maritime advisors for the Commandant.
• Exercise leadership at international, national, regional, state, and local safety, security, and environmental committees.

Allen used a metaphor for future improvements -- attributed to Capt. Frank Sturm on staff at CGHQ -- during his remarks before the Propeller Club. In clear reference to U.S. Representative Jim Oberstar's (D-MN) recent proposal to remove some regulatory missions of the Coast Guard, he said, “The Coast Guard's collection of safety, security and stewardship missions are like a tightly-knitted textile, valued for its protective durability and light weight. The Coast Guard fabric draws its strength from the interlocking fibers of safety, security and stewardship (environmental protection), all fastened closely and firmly together. When the fabric is woven tight, it provides strength and support beyond the collective weight and durability of the independent threads. Separate the fibers, and the fabric unravels, weakens and fails to protect.”

Wednesday’s remarks gave Allen’s audience a hint of what is to come. The Coast Guard’s opposition to Rep. Oberstar’s proposal is well known. Whether this -- and its new program to improve service -- will be enough to satisfy those who will someday decide on the size and breadth of the Coast Guard’s future mission mix is not yet clear. The task will not, however, be easy, nor will it be a quick fix. It could also be expensive. Although funding for the Coast Guard has markedly increased, it is arguably not keeping pace with its expanded mission portfolio.

In August, ADM Allen testified at a hearing sponsored by the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. That hearing, which centered on “Challenges Facing the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Program,” also saw a host of industry executives testify about the shortcoming of Coast Guard performance. House committee members asked for a detailed explanation of what the Coast Guard would do in response to these problems and promised that they would hold Allen to a deadline in providing that advice. That document is due in October. What it says will almost certainly determine the direction of marine safety regulation in this country for the next generation, and beyond.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of the The Maritime Executive. He can be reached with comments at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com.