In light of the potential for unforeseen consequences because of the new Coast Guard medical NVIC, a little background is in order. The NVIC didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Our saga begins on the afternoon of October 15, 2003 in New York Harbor. A strong cold front had plunged down out of Canada, as is typical in autumn, bringing with it clear blue skies and gusty gale force winds. The 310-foot Staten Island Ferry boat Andrew J. Barberi left the Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan at 3:00 pm and, 22 minutes later, overshot the slips at the St. George Terminal on Staten Island and slammed into a concrete maintenance pier at full speed, killing 11 and severely maiming or injuring 165 more. The assistant captain piloting the Barberi had experienced a “temporary period of unresponsiveness” while at the helm and, although required by N.Y.C. Dept. of Transportation rules, there was no other captain present to take over. The subsequent NTSB report revealed that the man at the wheel was taking multiple prescription medications, including pain killers and high blood pressure meds, and that this information was deliberately omitted on his last Coast Guard physical report. Both he and his physician were charged with lying about it during his last license renewal. Other medical issues surfaced but, in the end, the NTSB was unable to determine the exact cause of the “unresponsive” episode that caused the crash.
What also came out of the investigation was the fact that there were numerous shortcomings in the way that mariners are evaluated and monitored for physical fitness to perform their required duties. Although all federal first-class pilots, which includes all of the ferry captains, must have an annual physical examination, there was no requirement for the license-holders to actually report the results of their examinations to the Coast Guard or anyone else. We have been essentially operating on the “scout’s honor” system and it has been found wanting. This would also include most of us in the towing industry that move oil or hazardous materials. To do so we must either take a pilot into the different ports of call or else we must have enough trips to “act as pilot” ourselves. Serving as our own pilot triggers the same annual physical requirement as for first-class pilots. Everyone else needs a physical only once every five years, at renewal time, to comply with federal regulations as per 46 CFR § 10.209(d). An awful lot can happen in five years, so maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea.
The finding most relevant to this particular subject, the new and expansive medical NVIC, was that the NTSB decided that the Coast Guard was providing insufficient information and/or guidance to the physicians conducting the examinations, hence the phone book we’ll be walking into our doctor’s office with on our next visit. But it’s hard to fault the NTSB’s findings and recommendations, or the Coast Guard’s response to them. Failure to act upon a known hazard would constitute negligence on their part. The real issue here is the contradictions of our society and the times we live in. Americans, in general, aren’t terribly healthy, and this condition is largely self-inflicted. Poor dietary habits, lack of exercise, and a tendency towards sedentary lifestyles afflict much of the country. Mariners are no different, we merely reflect the society of which we are a part. But the “public” seems to expect far more out of us (the transportation sector) than it demands of itself. We who work in safety-sensitive positions are expected to be healthy and “in shape” so that accidents like the Barberi and the I-40 Bridge Disaster in Webbers Falls, Ok. (click here for the full NTSB report) won’t ever happen again. Where adequate numbers of ready, willing and able mariners who are both sufficiently athletic and have enough experience to get the job done safely are supposed to be found is anyone’s guess. Then there are the issues of how, when and where mariners are supposed to have the opportunity to stay fit while crammed into tight quarters and working the 6 and 6 shifts that the industry can’t seem to shake. In the end it may simply be impractical to have standards as high as everyone thinks they should be. As the great philosopher Jagger once said, “you can’t always get what you want.”
Time will tell if the Coast Guard can really get tough about this or not. My feeling is that, while some individuals may be made examples of every now and then, it would be impossible for the Coast Guard to broadly and strictly enforce real fitness standards on today’s U.S. Merchant Marine without shutting down a considerable part of it, thereby paralyzing the country. If given a choice between reducing the potential risk of a serious accident, which may or may not directly involve the public, or getting their home heating oil delivered on time in January, which do you think people will choose? The thermostat will rule, at least until someone takes down another bridge or some other catastrophe occurs. So it goes…..