GAO Reports on U.S. Coast Guard Oversight Since El Faro Sinking

El Faro

Published Apr 8, 2020 7:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

After the October 2015 sinking of the El Faro, concerns raised over the ship’s safety plan raised questions about how the U.S. Coast Guard ensures that commercial ships comply with safety regulations.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has now released a report into the changes implemented by the Coast Guard saying that it is too soon to assess the effectiveness of these efforts; however, the GAO believes they are positive steps toward enhancing the Coast Guard's oversight of Recognized Organizations (ROs).

The Coast Guard relies on ROs, third parties that the Coast Guard has authorized, to perform activities such as verifying that domestic commercial vessels comply with safety management system (SMS) requirements. In 2018, based in part on the recommendations in the El Faro investigation report, the Coast Guard introduced new measures including:

•  establishing a new group within the Coast Guard to monitor ROs,
•  developing new SMS-related guidance and work instructions,
•  increasing direct observations of ROs performing SMS audits,
•  developing key performance indicators for assessing ROs, and
•  requesting internal investigations for certain RO deficiencies.

Additionally, the Coast Guard took steps to improve its management of the Alternate Compliance Program, including efforts to improve data reporting. For example, the Coast Guard revised its form for documenting deficiencies during annual vessel inspections. In particular, since March 2018, the Form 835V has included a checkbox to indicate if a deficiency is related to an SMS. According to the Coast Guard, this revision will allow for enhanced annual reporting of safety-related deficiencies identified during compliance activities.

The Coast Guard conducts approximately 1,200 inspections each year of vessels that are either required to maintain a Safety Management Certificate, or do so voluntarily. It issued between 70 and 130 SMS-related deficiencies in calendar year 2018 and between 183 and 212 in 2019. The American Bureau of Shipping and DNV GL collectively account for over 99 percent of the SMS certificates issued to U.S.-flagged vessels on the Coast Guard’s behalf.

The GAO examined a sample of 12 SMS plans for U.S.-flagged vessels and found that they did not address the full range of emergency scenarios included in Coast Guard guidance, although they did address the broad, functional requirement to identify potential shipboard emergencies and applicable response procedures. In reviewing the SMS plans, the GAO examined the extent to which they address 21 different potential shipboard emergencies identified in the 2018 Coast Guard guidance related to the ISM Code. The number of unique, potential shipboard emergency scenarios addressed in the SMS plans ranged from five to 16. Ship routing procedures related to heavy weather, which is an emergency scenario highlighted in the El Faro investigative report, was clearly identified in five of the 12 SMS plans reviewed. 

The most frequently addressed shipboard emergency scenarios are fire, collision, grounding, abandon ship and man overboard. 

The 2018 Coast Guard guidance states that it is not a substitute for applicable legal requirements, nor is it itself a rule. According to RO officials questioned by the GAO, their auditors are provided the 2018 Coast Guard guidance to use as part of their SMS audit criteria. The officials noted, however, that their auditors may be limited to issuing an “observation” to the vessel operator if any potential shipboard emergency listed in Coast Guard guidance is not addressed in SMS plan. Under the ISM Code, an “observation” is not the same as an SMS “nonconformity,” which would require specific corrective action.

The GAO report is available here.