Coast Guard marine inspectors, keeping America’s ports safe

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandyn Hill

Suited in blue coveralls and thick gloves, armed with hard hats and flashlights, are America’s front lines in the protection of critical infrastructure and commerce throughout our ports. Examining each vessel and facility both foreign and domestic, they work to ensure the safety of the American port community. These people are Coast Guard marine inspectors

Coast Guard marine inspectors are responsible for keeping America’s ports safe and to ensure the movement of maritime commerce, which encompasses 95% of all goods entering the United States.

In order to accomplish this mission, marine inspectors enforce regulations for vessels and facilities which are mandated by congress. Under Title 14 of the U.S. Code, the Coast Guard has the authority to conduct inspections and board all vessels within U.S. waters.

The inspection division’s history can be traced back to the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852, which was a result of many steamboat incidents at the time. Under this law, enforcement powers were placed under the Department of Treasury, which led to the organization of a federal maritime inspection service. The maritime inspection service was later transferred to the Coast Guard during World War II.

Complex missions and tasks of protecting America’s ports require Coast Guard men and women to be highly trained. A majority of Coast Guard marine inspectors are comprised of Marine Science Technicians (MST), although commissioned officers, warrant officers and civilians also make up the inspections workforce. MST’s are first required to go through eight weeks of specialized training in Yorktown, Va. Here they learn how to investigate and supervise the clean-up of pollution incidents, perform waterfront facility and security inspections and conduct safety and security boardings aboard vessels. After initial training, MST’s also have many other types of training available to them to help further their professional knowledge. These additional training opportunities include waterfront facilities inspection school, marine inspector course, container inspection training, seaport security/antiterrorism training, pollution incident response training, Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) training and radiation detection school.

All of this in-depth training aid members of the inspection division in their mission to ensure the safety of personnel throughout the port, enforce security for facilities and vessels, help prevent pollution and keep commerce flowing.

The inspection division’s primary mission is the safety of people working throughout the ports. By enforcing the required laws and regulations under the international convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the inspection division is able to promote a safe working environment for the crew of the facilities and vessels they inspect.

“The more we enforce the regulations, the better the environment for the owner-operator, as well as the crew,” said Chief Petty Officer Kate Cameron, a marine inspector at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore.

Another important mission for the inspection division is to enforce safety and security for facilities and vessels throughout the ports. Ensuring proper security measures are followed is a vital role in keeping America’s ports safe.

Each facility is required to create and submit a Facility Security Plan (FSP) to the Coast Guard for review and approval under the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 (MTSA). The Coast Guard will review the plan to verify whether or not the security measures put in place are sufficient for the facility’s operation.

The Port Safety and Security branch of the inspection division is responsible for enforcing safety and security regulations for facilities along the ports, said Lt. Anthony J. Quirino, the chief of Port Safety and Security at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. For example, the Code of Federal Regulations list specific requirements for facilities to follow. These requirements are put in place and enforced for safety reasons.

“By having and enforcing standards, we are trying to keep commerce flowing,” said Quirino.

Although having these requirements in place are paramount to safety and security, it is not without some inherent problems.

“Safety and security regulations can have an impact on a company’s bottom line,” said Quirino. “Complying with these regulations can be costly and time consuming. It is our responsibility to ensure that the regulations are fairly and equitably enforced so that America’s ports continue to operate safely and securely while at the same time taking into consideration the impacts of those regulations on industry,” he said.

To ensure a facility’s compliance, the Port Safety and Security Branch conduct annual inspections. The Coast Guard will check compliance with the Code of Federal Regulations, conduct a walk-through of the facility to check the physical security measures, interview security guards to verify knowledge of the facility FSP and review documents and logs.

“The Coast Guard is mandated under the Safe Port Act to conduct a certain amount of announced as well as unannounced inspections of maritime facilities,” said Quirino. “Here at Sector Baltimore, we generally exceed the minimum yearly requirements of the act.”

The Port Safety and Security branch determines the level of risk and prioritizes that level to determine which facilities should be inspected.

“Each facility poses its own risk based on what type of cargo they transfer and what type of ships they receive,” said Quirino.

If a facility or vessel is not in compliance with the required regulations, Coast Guard marine inspectors will document their findings. Depending on the severity of the deficiency, the item may be corrected on the spot or it may be as severe as temporarily shutting down a facility.

“Its all about safety and security,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Shingleton, a marine inspector from Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. “If safety is compromised, then commerce is going to suffer.”

Like facilities, vessels must also comply with federally mandated laws and regulations, such as SOLAS, in order to maintain a safe port.

The Port State Control and Deep Draft Vessel Branch under the inspection division is responsible for screening arriving vessels, inspecting U.S. and foreign vessels when needed and issuing Certificates of Inspection (COI) to U.S.-flagged vessels.

“My role is to ensure that we are inspecting the vessels that we need to, foreign and domestic, and make sure they are in compliance with U.S. laws and regulations,” said Lt. Robert D. Webb, the chief of the Port State Control and Deep Draft Vessel Branch at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore.

Vessels are required to submit a Notice of Arrival (NOA) prior to entering a port. During this time, marine inspectors will review the information presented and assign it a vessel boarding priority ranging from one to three, one being the highest.

“For the most part, it’s a seamless transition when we do our inspections,” said Webb.

Typically a routine inspection is during a vessel’s cargo off-load operations and does not disrupt commerce, said Webb. However, if a vessel has major deficiencies that need to be addressed immediately, such as diminished life saving or fire fighting capabilities, other measures may need to be taken. To ensure proficiency with safety measures, a fire drill and abandon ship drill are performed and evaluated.

“There are two methods for Port State Control, intervention and detention,” said Webb. “Intervention is when we discover a problem and document the deficiency. Detention is when a vessel has a problem that has been deemed detainable,” he said.

“We will do what we can to work with a vessel to not keep them beyond their scheduled time frame, but sometimes you have to,” said Webb. “What we do may end up costing them money, but it’s in the interest of safety and security,” he said.

The responsibility lies within the vessels to maintain compliance with laws and regulations. Coast Guard marine inspectors conduct annual inspections to ensure that all vessels are compliant.

“The benefit of our requirement of compliance is reducing the number of sub-standard vessels calling upon the U.S.,” said Webb.

“If you didn’t have Port State Control and didn’t crack down on sub-standard vessels, it could open the door to a lot of bad things,” said Shingleton.

Although commerce may be interrupted from time-to-time, it’s the responsibility of the Coast Guard to effectively ensure the safety of personnel throughout the port, enforce safety and security regulations for facilities and vessels, protect the environment and keep commerce flowing.

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