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CEMS and the Tugboat Quandary

The responsibilities of the pilothouse watch stander by definition are to stay awake and alert. The number of tools at hand to facilitate a proper lookout and safe passage include compasses (magnetic and gyro), radar, D.G.P.S., A.I.S., or a combination of all in a chart plotter, radios, cell phones, engine room monitors, and alarms. The pilothouse watch stander is tasked with the duties of piloting and navigating the vessel safely for the duration of the watch, which can last anywhere from 4 to 8 hours at a stretch. In the towing industry it’s usually a 6-hour watch and it has been this way for decades.

The new Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS) that is being marched out is a testament to the level of concern and the struggle for solutions. Generally, I’m not interested in arguing against the CEMS idea. In fact, I agree with much of it. But I believe that the “tugboat reality” is being ignored for the most part when it comes to this approach.

The four-part evaluation called for with CEMS addresses the basics regarding reducing noise levels, darkened sleeping quarters, minimizing extraneous noise, and a proper diet. The evaluation is by no means a cut and dried schedule of requirements, it’s more of a guide, subject to fine-tuning over time. It gets complicated enough that a “mature system” would make provisions to ask the operator to use less throttle to minimize shudder and vibration. Aww Jeez, are we going to sing Kumbaya now? For crying out loud it ain’t the Love Boat!

On a tugboat, these criteria are not easily met at the outset since the environmental factors and noise levels would be nearly inescapable. Sometimes you just need to “hook it up”. The rooms can be darkened and the hours shifted, but the biggest catch comes when the vessel needs to complete its deck and engine maintenance items. As it is, the CEMS schedule doesn’t really allow for the truly noisy work to be accomplished since there’s always someone trying to sleep. We don’t have cooks anymore, gourmet or otherwise. The deckhands try, but it’s really a crapshoot. A tugboat is usually too small to have a quiet zone. HVAC systems are usually common, or zoned as little as possible, so cooking, smoking, and general odors are always present to one degree or another. And to have a “coach” wandering around shushing everyone wouldn’t be very well received.

So, throwing caution to the wind and giving a nod to three of the key precepts of the CEMS pamphlet, I decided that my crew and I would give the altered watch schedule a try. Mainly to see whether we derive any clear benefit from a slightly longer sleep period once a day. There were no major changes made aboard as far as noise reduction or room darkening, or even diet modification. Most of the exterior maintenance was complete for the year, the rooms were already as dark as they were gonna get, the dietary picture was a foregone conclusion since we don’t have the luxury of a cook, and that’s it. Everyone had an opportunity to make his opinion known during and after the trial.

On crew change day we set up our watches based on an 0600 start (7 hours on, 5 off, 5 on, 7 off). We didn’t attempt to alter the overall schedule to let the back watch avoid the dawning day since they wouldn’t see the sun rise this late in the year anyway. The front watch (or Captain’s) runs from 0600-1300, then rests for 5 hours (1300-1800), then stands a 5-hour watch from 1800-2300, and then is off from 2300-0600. The back watch (or Mate’s) runs from 1300-1800, is off from 1800-2300, then stands the 2300-0600 watch, and is off from 0600-1300.

I asked the crew to conduct this experiment for one week to see if anyone had a good or bad reaction to the altered watch schedule. The end result showed that the back watch was being robbed of any benefit since they wouldn’t get any real rest on the short off-watch period. They reported not being able to fall asleep. This would make the following long watch nearly insufferable in the last hour. Rather than more rest, they were getting less. There isn’t any provision personnel-wise that can be made for a “nap” so soldiering on for the week was in order.

The term of the test is acknowledged as being a short time frame, but I think the glaring issue has more to do with the fact that the back watch was getting less overall rest even with a longer rest period. It was apparent within a couple of days that they just weren’t tired enough to get any meaningful rest on their short off watch following the evening meal. Dragging the experiment out any longer would have created a real fatigue issue.

Mr. Thomas Allegreti, the C.E.O. of the American Waterways Operators, used a study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Waterways Council to address the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation during hearings this past September. These hearings were related to the T/V Mel Oliver incident in New Orleans and general safety and regulatory compliance on the Inland River System. He quoted from the study regarding the U.S. inland waterway’s status as “the safest and most environmentally friendly and economical form of freight transportation.” He also quoted the study to say that our had industry achieved record lows for crew fatalities and tank barge spills. It stated that tank barge spills between 1994 and 2007 had declined by 99.5%. The compliance data indicates that the inland fleet is 85% double-hulled, well ahead of the OPA-90 deadline. Once we look past the high profile idiots making the news, the rest of us are quietly plugging away at 99.5% efficiency. The struggle continues as we strive for 99.9%.

Originally, I wrote this as a response to a letter I read in the Mail Bag of Workboat that stated the 6 and 6 rotation was deadly. I believe that after conducting this little trial, calling 6 and 6 deadly is unwarranted. The commenter did not represent himself with facts, merely unsubstantiated opinion. That said, I’ve been standing 6 hours on and 6 hours off for 30 years and I don’t see anything getting better by simply dividing the day up differently. It would be nice to have the right amount of crew and the right watch schedule, and the perfect corporate attitude to allow for the perfect work environment. But we all know that doesn’t exist on this side of Neverland.

The work needs to be done and someone will be disturbed. We’re moving in the right direction, but we have to give a nod to reality. Some things will work, others won’t. It remains to be seen how the CEMS situation will play out. It has many thoughtful and practical recommendations, but it’s not the panacea when it comes to tugboats. It’s a near certainty we’ll be required to implement some form of it or another. Any progress would be better than none, but there is no magic pill that will alleviate crew fatigue completely. The system’s cheerleaders notwithstanding, it doesn’t try to, and could not, address all the different scenarios one would encounter in our working environment.

A tugboat is a noisy, dynamic and dangerous place to spend time, and it requires a level of awareness that requires one to be sleep-deprived from time to time. You’re going to miss some sleep participating in drills, emergency call-outs, and overtime events that have little concern for normal sleep patterns. Mealtimes will be rushed and sometimes missed. It’s a fact that the choice of meals may not meet with healthy dietary guidelines, and we’re lucky if they even get served on time.

Corporate bottom lines will become even more important with the coming of the financial market’s new “Ice Age”, and it appears that nothing will prevent the powers that be from continuing to heap new safety regulations and procedures upon us. All while showing little or no concern for reality when it comes to actually meeting these safety mandates. Family and financial stresses will always be with us, more so lately as we’re all watching our 401k’s eat their tail. Thanks, Wall Street!

Many can say that my experience with this idea was not primed for success from the start since I didn’t go through the evaluations, audits, and investigations addressing the main aspects of the CEMS design. But I don’t see it as being necessary or that complex of an issue. When you boil it down, its easy to see that the amount of energy expended will outpace the end result when it comes to tugboats.

So right now I’ll just say that I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Capt. Bill Brucato

ATB Nicole L. Reinauer Master of Towing Vessels – Oceans Master ≤1,600 GRT – Oceans Designated Examiner

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