It was a simple and obvious enough question to ask, so we called up Congressional staff members from the House Transportation Committee and asked it. A lot. Why was the U.S. Coast Guard’s Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC), whose explicit purpose for existing is to give the Coast Guard much-needed expert advice regarding safety in towing operations (and the improvement thereof), so heavily stacked with members without any actual or recent first-hand towing experience?
Inspired by the ill-conceived 30-Day Wonder fiasco of 2008-9, which was formally endorsed by TSAC, we asked that question again and again, burning up uncounted long-distance cell phone minutes trying to persuade these harried staffers that TSAC couldn’t possibly be offering the Coast Guard the advice it really needed until and unless actively-working mariners from within the towing industry made up a significant portion of the committee and were treated as equals. The TSAC Charter specified that members must have “particular expertise, knowledge, and experience regarding shallow-draft inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety.” How could one possess those attributes without having done any of it? The committee wasn’t what it could and should be.
We were also sick and tired of the mariner’s perspective being ignored while the interests of “management” were well-represented and given a lot of weight, some of which we thought was undue and clearly not in the best interests of safety. The sole mariner representative at that time was Capt. Joe Dady of the National Mariners Association, who was designated to serve under the then-existing “labor” slot. Then, in 2008, another working mariner, Capt. Edie Queen, won a position. But mariners were still heavily outnumbered and had little to no influence on the official “advice” being dispensed by TSAC.
Nonetheless, we kept at it. Amazingly, to us at least, Congress actually listened. In Section 621 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010/Public Law 111-281, signed into law by the president on October 15th of last year, Congress renewed the TSAC charter for another ten years (it had been allowed to expire at the end of last September) and made some major changes to it. The size of the committee was increased to 18 members and, most importantly, four of the new positions are now reserved for working mariners (or their representatives) on ship-assist tugs, coastal & ocean towing tugs, Western Rivers/GICW towboats and tug/towboat engineers everywhere (licensed or not). It’s very important to emphasize the words “working mariner,” as in boots-on-the-deck and actively working on vessels in the present tense. The Coast Guard, for its part, understands very well that towing skills are perishable. They have a shelf-life and grow stale and wither with non-use. That’s why you must have recency of service specifically on towing vessels to renew a towing license/endorsement (or attend yet another course of questionable value). Those who work ashore, even those with a lot of prior relevant experience, can and sometimes do lose touch with the realities faced by those who are still in the game. It’s very difficult not to and that’s why the working-mariner additions to the committee, covering a broad spectrum of the towing industry, are so vital.
Here’s the relevant text from pages 73 & 74 of the Act:
(e) TOWING SAFETY ADVISORY COMMITTEE.—The Act entitled ‘‘An Act to establish a Towing Safety Advisory Committee in the Department of Transportation’’, approved October 6, 1980, (33 U.S.C. 1231a) is amended — (1) by striking subsection (a) and inserting the following: ‘‘(a) There is established a Towing Safety Advisory Committee (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Committee’). The Committee shall consist of eighteen members with particular expertise, knowledge, and experience regarding shallow-draft inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety as follows: ‘‘(1) Seven members representing the barge and towing industry, reflecting a regional geographic balance. ‘‘(2) One member representing the offshore mineral and oil supply vessel industry. ‘‘(3) One member representing holders of active licensed Masters or Pilots of towing vessels with experience on the Western Rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. ‘‘(4) One member representing the holders of active licensed Masters of towing vessels in offshore service. ‘‘(5) One member representing Masters who are active shipdocking or harbor towing vessel. ‘‘(6) One member representing licensed or unlicensed towing vessel engineers with formal training and experience. ‘‘(7) Two members representing each of the following groups: ‘‘(A) Port districts, authorities, or terminal operators. ‘‘(B) Shippers (of whom at least one shall be engaged in the shipment of oil or hazardous materials by barge). ‘‘(8) Two members representing the general public.’’; and (2) in subsection (e), by striking ‘‘September 30, 2010.’’ and inserting ‘‘September 30, 2020.’’.
That Act of Congress eventually resulted in the following action from the Coast Guard: on January 20th, in the Federal Register, they published this notice announcing a “request for applications” to fill the new openings on the committee which reads…..
“The Coast Guard is currently considering applications for eight positions, four current positions that will become vacant on September 30, 2011 and four newly created active-credentialed positions, resulting from amendments to the committee membership by section 621 of the 2010 Coast Guard Authorization Act, Public Law 111-281.”
“To be eligible, applicants should have expertise, knowledge, and experience relative to the position in the towing industry, marine transportation, or business operations associated with shallow-draft inland and coastal waterway navigation and towing safety.”
To be sure, there is still a potential killer roadblock to independent participation by mariners. As always, it’s all about the money.
“All members serve at their own expense and receive no salary, or other compensation from the Federal Government. The exception to this policy is the possible reimbursement of travel expenses depending on fiscal budgetary constraints.”
Translation: independent mariners serving on the committee have to front the money and turn in the receipts for travel, room and board, then the Coast Guard may reimburse them if the funding is available and they choose to do it. This is in stark contrast to another advisory committee with mariner members (MERPAC) which has had a long history of funding their participation without forcing them to beg for it. And they wonder where the bad blood came from? This is still an improvement of sorts because, up until a couple of years ago, there was no chance of reimbursement at all. It required the steady pressure of pointing out continuously that mariners were effectively being blocked from serving on TSAC because of this policy and that it was inconsistent with the policies of the other committee that mariners served on. There seemed to be a pattern of behavior that was unwelcoming, at best, or deliberate obstruction, at worst. But for the last couple of years Capt.’s Dady and Queen have been getting reimbursed. This current “policy” could easily be rescinded at any time, though. There needs to be a better guarantee than a “maybe,” especially given the fact that TSAC funding is really just chump change for our government given our industry’s size and importance to the nation’s transportation system. Capt.’s Richard Block and Joe Dady of the National Mariners Association deserve much credit for being long-time advocates for mariner representation on the advisory committees.
Despite the systemic flaws we believe that the opportunity to get things moving in the right direction is finally at hand and the MTVA strongly encourages any working mariners in the towing industry who think that they have something to offer as a potential member of TSAC to take advantage of these new openings and apply. Click here for applications, which must be received no later than March 7, 2011. The mailing address is Commandant (CG-5222)/TSAC, U.S. Coast Guard, 2100 Second St., SW, STOP 7126, Washington, DC, 20593-7126. Any questions should be directed to Mr. Michael D. Harmon, Alternate Designated Federal Officer (ADFO) of Towing Safety Advisory Committee, phone – 202-372-1427, fax – 202-372-1926, e-mail Michael.J.Harmon@uscg.mil.
Fighting for and gaining seats at the table is only part of the equation. It’s not the same thing as being heard, let alone taken seriously or heeded. So here’s the million-dollar question: will the intent of Congress be honored by the Coast Guard? Clearly, the law would not have been changed had Congress not seen a real need for our participation. Has there been, or at least will there be, a culture-change within the Coast Guard that ensures that mariner’s input will now be given the same respect and consideration as that of the other committee members/factions? In the end this is a put-up-or-shut-up moment for everyone involved with TSAC. If mariners choose not to serve, and/or the Coast Guard continues its long-standing practice of ignoring us, and/or TSAC’s dominant heavyweights continue to marginalize us, then it’s all for naught and the industry will suffer for it more than it already has. On the other hand, if the Coast Guard chooses the new members wisely and some real collaboration and cooperation occurs, the committee will be greatly strengthened as the credibility and quality of its advice to the Coast Guard improves. This will, in turn, improve the industry as a whole.
Interesting times lie dead ahead…..