Review: Subchapter M Conference At MITAGS (Baltimore)


Published Oct 5, 2019 10:40 PM by Dennis Murphy

Hey, all you tug/tow boat companies out there, do you have “Subchapter M” all figured out? If not, you should have been at MITAGS (Baltimore) for the big “Sub-M” conference on September 26-27. It was an eye-opener! I learned all kinds of things that I didn’t even know I needed to know! 

I am one of the instructors for the MITAGS West Coast campus (formally the Pacific Maritime Institute,) and I do a lot of the traveling classes for tug/tow boat companies. Usually at these classes the first question is: What time can we get out of here today? And the second question is: What do I know about the new Subchapter-M that everyone is required to achieve over this four year period we are in right now?

So, allow me to now give you the “nickel tour” of what transpired at this most productive gathering. It had an amazing lineup of speakers from industry experts to (literally) the guys who wrote the book on Sub-M. 

Thomas Allegretti (American Waterways Operators (AWO)): “A Culture of Safety NOT A Culture of Compliance”

Allegretti started out by giving us a rundown of the “where and how” Sub-M came into being. He also went on to outline the requirements a company needs to accomplish before they are allowed to join the AWO. As Allegretti said, the AWO organization likes to think of themselves as being in a partnership with industry and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), rather than adversaries.

He went on to talk about how this partnership is working towards making the inspection process work for the tug/tow industry but also brought up the fact that the USCG simply does not have enough inspectors to accomplish the goal of Sub-M. This is where the alternative system of compliance comes into play.

There are more than 6,000 tug/tow boats in our industry, and at this time 75 percent of them are already using the Tug Safety Management System (TSMS), which is a key element of Sub-M. As recently as five years ago there was an average of 30 to 40 mariners killed at work each year, where today after the implementation of the TSMS it’s down to about three per year. 

There was some talk about “waivers,” but ALL tug/tow companies were supposed to be completely compliant by the end of 2018, so for all practical purposes there has already been a number of “grace period” years. However, there is an appeal process.

CDR Andrew Bender, Eric Johnson, Lt Scott Arbeiter and CW Jeff Brown (USCG): (These Are The Guys That Actually Wrote The Book)

These guys started out giving some history of the development of the law. The timeline started in 2004 with the Maritime Transportation Act, then the “Final Rule” came in 2016. Originally all companies were to be fully compliant by 2018. We all know that didn’t work, so they set up a tiered phase in of the compliance requirements. Currently, 25 percent of vessels need to be compliant in 2019, 50 percent compliant in 2020 (with 100 percent of small operators being 100 percent compliant this year), 75 percent compliant by 2021 and 100 percent compliant by 2022. 

There were 237 SMS Certifications issued this year, so there are now more than 3,350 vessels under SMS. There are 1,150 vessels certified with a Certificate of Inspection (COI), and there are at least 320 vessels in the queue. In addition, there have been more than 400 trained internal auditors to date.

The USCG has established a program called “Tug Safe” to address industry questions and set up a website called “Tug Safe Central” at: [email protected]

There was a question about “fines” for non-compliance, and the answer was a bit vague. It sounded like a bit of a “moving target” at this time. As might be expected from a new law this big, some aspects are yet to be worked out. They were able to mention some of the most common non-conformities, including: machinery, structure, navigation safety, documentation, training, equipment and if a fatality occurs.

The presenters indicated that operators should not wait until the end of the application process time period or the necessary COI may not be obtained in time. It was also suggested that operators could avoid getting all the vessels in their fleet certified at the same time - so that they don't all come due at the same time.

One other topic that came up was that the new TSMS requires an employee feedback procedure that includes a yearly Master’s review. 

Captain Jeff Slesinger (Delphi Maritime): “Notes From The Field – The Auditors Perspective”

Slesinger talked about “Unique Operations.” This category of vessels would include fish tenders, landing craft and very small tug/tow boats. There seems to be a misconception that they are not covered by Sub-M, but they certainly are and should be complying with the new rules.

Slesinger also reminded the audience that Sub-M is a “Journey”, and operators shouldn’t expect to get everything done at one time. Rather, they need to set priorities for what needs to be completed right away and what can be put off for later. Firstly, they need to address simple, but very important, things like equipment maintenance, fire systems, water tight doors and hatches, wiring and electric systems, fire detection, training and also record keeping. 

Most all the older boats were built in a time when the electrical needs were a few lights and possibly an electric razor or two. To complying with Sub-M, there most be no multi-port extension cords running around the boat. Everything needs to plug into its own socket, and the electric circuits need to be rated for the power draw that is needed. 

Slesinger concluded that the industry needs to be proactive (not reactive) with the USCG and develop a good working relationship with them. He also noted that there are no “catch-all” experts out there that can do everything so operators need to stay heavily involved. He said: “Don’t work to be in compliance, but rather make the process work for you.”

Jo Ann Salyers (Salyers Solutions); “You Don’t Need To Know ALL The Answers, But You DO Need To Know Where To Find Them”

Salyers stressed that when an auditor attends a vessel, the operator should be ready to show them, not “talk about,” every aspect of Sub-M. As an audit grows near, all requirements should be double-checked so there are no surprise non-conformities noted.

She also stated: “Don’t just check off a box, but rather the question is: are you compliant with the spirit of the law?” She recommended attending to possible problems before there’s an actual problem: be proactive rather than reactive, and Sub-M becomes much more manageable. People are held personally accountable for their actions and any deficiencies.

Kim Rene Vageskar, Captain Shane Smith and Wayne Schaffnit: Sub-M Mandated Water Retrieval  

There were two different companies represented at the program that were offering ideas on how to become compliant with the mandate to be able to retrieve someone from the water. It was discussed how difficult it is to recover someone from the water without some means of mechanical assistance. It was also noted that as much as possible, a person should be picked up horizontally, rather than vertically. Once someone has been retrieved from the water, they should not be allowed to walk or otherwise move around on their own. Many a mariner has died as a result.

The man overboard (MOB) drill has to be conducted while underway, not dockside. Practice prior to an audit is advised. Under Sub-M, the Master is personally accountable that all drills, including MOB, are to be run as if it’s a real emergency. No exceptions.

Michael Armfield and John Cox (software company representatives): “Remember that in the Governments Eyes, If It’s Not Written Down…… Then It Didn’t Happen”

With the new Sub-M, proof may be required to demonstrate that an action or drill has been undertaken. It has to be written down at some location that is easily retrievable. A verbal account is not adequate. Both of the software presenters were offering easy-to-use software solutions for maritime industry needs. 

Kate Keeler (P&R Water Taxi): “Dinner With Kate” 

Keeler spoke about how the small company she works for in Hawaii has become completely compliant with the new rules. It really wasn’t that painful for them. She discussed the path to compliance, saying how building a relationship between the company and the USCG is a “must” to accomplish Sub-M requirements. She stressed that the USCG is not trying to put small operators out of business, rather they are trying to bring the industry into the 21st century.

She finished with a question rather than a statement: “How does the SMS move us forward, and how will it make us $$$?” And as a last thought, she stressed: “Just do the paperwork!” (You will have to do it sooner or later…)

Captain Inderjit Arora (Quality Management Int.): Sub-M: Bane or Boom

Arora said: “A bad system will let down a good man every time.” He spoke on using a process-based management system approach for success, and, like other presents before him, stressed that Sub-M is designed to help the industry, rather than hinder it. He also stressed that the USCG is only doing their job of making the industry safer. Another thought of his was: Don’t ask the question of “who”, but rather ask the “why” and the “how”. The “who” is easy, as its all of us in the industry.

Arora said he believes most SMS’s are far off the mark. An SMS should be a working functional document of no more than 30 to 40 pages, and defiantly not 1,000 pages. With a smaller document, the “rank and file” might actually use it. Who will read a document of 1,000 pages?

He said the implementation of Sub-M was not just “checking off the boxes” but rather “how can this keep us safer?” He also talked about how that foreign ship is a product of that foreign port state. How they live at home, and their attitudes towards safety, travel with them.

Arora things that operators can make use of the SMS they might already have - a whole new system isn't required. He said that if non-conformities go up, that usually means that the system is working. It’s good to find non-conformities, as it helps everyone to become safer. “You fix the problems, and then you move on.”

In conclusion, he stressed that an operator's “policy” should be converted into “measureable achievement” not just checking off the boxes. To achieve this goal, an operator has the choice of USCG inspections or self-inspections with the TSMS. 

Arora made the sobering observation that every three months a passenger vessel or ferry sinks.

Martin Glenday (Moxie Media): Your Health and Safety Plan

Glenday reminded the audience that everyone was required to have a Health and Safety Plan (HSP) by July 22, 2019. This plan should be ready to present during an audit and it should include the equipment manufacturer’s training recommendations. Any piece of equipment that does not work, or needs repair, needs to “tagged out” or entirely removed from the vessel. 

He noted other basic safety items that would trigger a non-conformity such as: drinking water sanitation, food handling and personal hygiene. 

Additionally, he noted that there is lots of record keeping that needs to kept up-to-date. He also reminded the audience that: 1) You need to remember to include your control of confined space areas, and 2)  One of the big new requirements is annual refresher training on all kinds of things. This refresher training must be a “hands-on” and “show-me” activity. 

Jon Kjaerulff (MITAGS Business Development Manager): Assuring Proficiency As Well As Compliance

Kjaerulff started his talk with a couple of questions: 1) Does training make mariners safer? and 2) Does compliance with Sub-M make you safer? He indicated that a lot of what Sub-M is covering is actually rules that OSHA used to cover. He also asked: What is the underlying basis of your TSMS? Do you actually want to do things well, or do you just want to live up to the requirements to get your COI? 

Sub-M holds everyone, but in particular the master, far more accountable for all kinds of things. The specific requirement now is that the master must make sure that the crew is “proficient” at a task, not just “trained” on that task. There is a big difference! Kjaerulff concluded with the statement: “Compliance keeps you on the right side of the law where proficiency makes sure you can actually do what needs to be done.”

Captain Morgan Turrell (NTSB): “A Culture Of Safety”

Turrell also started out with a question for the group; “What is your job? It’s safety! Yes, we have all seen the posters and signs touting this idea (again and again….), but do you really 'live' the thought?” He went on to stress the idea that everyone should always be asking themselves “what if?” Over the last four years about a third of all maritime incidents have involved the tug/tow industry.

He brought a hot-off-the-press compilation of NTSB reports from the past year. It has tons of “what went wrong” and what might have changed the outcome. They are an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others.

He asked: Why would they build water-tight doors and hatches into your vessel if you were supposed to keep them open? How about adding tug/tow boats into VTS? Are you positively sure your AIS is correct? What is your procedure for securing cranes and other equipment? He noted problems with barge mooring and fleeting problems at the waterfront is an on-going problem. 


And so, there you have it. There are many things to be worked on for Sub-M compliance, but remember why they came about in the first place. If the tug/tow boat industry had been voluntarily keeping up with the other aspects of the commercial maritime industry, we wouldn’t be talking about this at all. All this “new stuff” would have already been in our daily operations.

Of course it’s costing the companies time, money and effort….. But at least we are moving in the right direction. Remember, only five years ago, 30 to 40 mariners died every year at work. Hopefully, everyone will make it home in as good a condition as when they left, which has not always been the case in the past.

If you want the entire set of presentations, they are available for no cost at: https://www.mitags.org/subchapter-m-conference-presentations/

Be safe out there!

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.