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“When in Doubt…Call”

By Barry Compagnoni

Captain, U.S. Coast Guard (retired)

Senior Consultant

If you’re a professional in the maritime industry, there’s a fair chance that you’ve been involved in responding to a situation like this: You are the owner/manager/agent of the motor vessel ALFA, a foreign-flagged container ship, which is conducting cargo operations in a port in the United States. As a container is being moved, a crew member’s leg is pinned and immediately crushed. The vessel’s master quickly assesses that the injury will require medical attention beyond first aid and quickly notifies the duty agent, who calls 911 for an ambulance. The crewmember is stabilized on deck when the ambulance arrives within 10 minutes and he is transported to a local hospital for treatment. So what should be your next course of action?

Maritime professionals need to know the U.S. regulatory context.

On the bridge, a captain’s orders to his officers often include the directive, “When in doubt, call.” Too often, when responding to a marine casualty or Serious Marine Incident (SMI), masters, companies, and agencies fail to heed this simple order. This failure exposes companies and vessel officers to substantial civil penalties and operational controls affecting the vessel’s future commercial schedule. Why is such a simple action missed so often?

Perhaps the root cause of some of these notification failures lies in the language of the regulation.

In the U.S., marine casualties are defined in 46 CFR §4.03-1 as “any casualty or accident involving any vessel” that occurs in the navigable water if the United States, or any “events caused by or involving a vessel” in such waters. These “events” include all of the obvious incidents, such as collisions and groundings, but also include reductions in the capability to navigate (e.g. loss of electric power, propulsion, etc.) or might affect or impair a vessel's seaworthiness, efficiency, or fitness for service or route. These definitions are about as clear and direct as possible, given the desire by the Coast Guard to address every conceivable marine casualty situation.

A more ambiguous term is the Serious Marine Incident, which is defined in 46 CFR §4.03-2, and includes marine casualties resulting in death or deaths, injuries requiring professional medical treatment beyond first aid, more than $100,000 damage to property, loss of a vessel, or oil spills in excess of 10,000 gallons.

U.S. regulations at 46 CFR §4.05 require immediate reporting of certain types of marine casualties, with the further requirement of a written report on form CG-2692 (discussed later) within five days of the casualty. Most of these conditions requiring notification of the Coast Guard are also quite clear and unambiguous. However, the Serious Marine Incident that involves an injury to a crew member, passenger, or other individual seems to be more problematic and requires the assessment of the master or crew to make a judgement call. It’s this judgement that often takes the response to the SMI down a troublesome path that exposes parties to potential penalties.

Regardless of the nature of the casualty or SMI, the initial actions to notify the Coast Guard should follow the same process. Here are four (relatively) simple steps for the owner, agent, or vessel master to take to ensure that the response starts out on the correct course.

Follow four basic steps to respond.

Step 1: Pick up the phone (or radio). The Coast Guard must be immediately notified of the SMI and injury to the crewmember. The requirement is clear in 46 CFR §4.05-1, immediately after the addressing of resultant safety concerns, the owner, agent, master, operator, or person in charge, shall notify the nearest Sector Office, Marine Inspection Office or Coast Guard Group Office whenever a vessel is involved in a marine casualty consisting in…an injury that requires professional medical treatment (treatment beyond first aid) and, if the person is engaged or employed on board a vessel in commercial service, that renders the individual unfit to perform his or her routine duties.” In our example, this can be done by any one of the parties who are aware of the details of the incident. Immediate reporting is the key measure of compliance.

Step 2: Provide the critical Essential Elements of Information. 46 CFR §4.05-5 requires that the whomever reporting the SMI to the Coast Guard should provide the name and official number of the vessel involved, the name of the vessel's owner or agent, the nature and circumstances of the casualty, where the casualty occurred, the nature and extent of injury to persons, and the damage to property. The master and/or duty agent already knows all of the information required for this initial report, the key action is to make the call.

Step 3: Test everyone involved in the SMI for drugs and alcohol. The guidance in 46 CFR §4.05-12 places the onus of responsibility for alcohol and drug testing on the marine employer, in that they “shall determine whether there is any evidence of alcohol or drug use by individuals directly involved in the casualty.” This information shall be included in the written report (Form CG-2692) and includes: identification of the individuals tested, how the tests were administered (by personal observation or chemical testing), and that any evidence of intoxication is recorded in the ship’s official log book. If an individual shows evidence of intoxication, he or she must be notified that the entry is being made in the log book and the entry must be witnessed by another member of the crew. Keep in mind that “any individual engaged or employed on board a vessel who is determined to be directly involved in an SMI must provide a blood, breath, saliva, or urine specimen for chemical testing when directed to do so by the marine employer or a law enforcement officer.” If an individual refuses a chemical test, this refusal must be recorded in the official log and witnessed by another member of the crew.

Step 4: Complete and submit a CG-2692 to the Coast Guard: Of course, there’s always paperwork. CG-2692 is the Coast Guard “Report of Marine Casualty, Commercial Diving Casualty, or OCS-Related Casualty.” Outlined in 46 CFR §4.05-10, the owner, agent, master, operator, or person in charge shall, within five days, file a written report of any marine casualty required to be reported…This written report is in addition to the immediate notice. This written report must be delivered to a Coast Guard Sector

Office or Marine Inspection Office and it must be provided on Form CG-2692. These additional forms are also required for submission to the Coast Guard:

  • CG-2692B (Report of Mandatory Chemical Testing Following a Serious Marine Incident Involving Vessels in Commercial Service),

  • CG-2692C (Personnel Casualty Addendum), and

  • CG-2692D (Involved Persons and Witnesses Addendum).

If filed without delay after the occurrence of the marine casualty, the report can suffice as the initial notification (see Step One above). The owner, agent, master, operator, or person in charge need to coordinate who will assemble the information and complete the 2692, the 2692B, the 2692C, and the 2692D. Personnel preparing the 2692 for submission to the Coast Guard should ensure that they use the new forms, which will be required as of January 1st, 2017.

Now that the Coast Guard has been notified, what next?

And why does the Coast Guard investigate these marine casualties? The Coast Guard’s purpose is to determine: the cause of the accident; if there was a failure of material which contributed to the casualty; if there was an act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law; whether Coast Guard personnel or any representative or employee of any other government agency or any other person caused or contributed to the cause of the casualty; or, if the accident needs to be further investigated by a Marine Board of Investigation.

The Coast Guard will evaluate the notification to determine if a marine casualty or Serious Marine Incident has occurred and follow up with an investigation if warranted. The owner, agent, and master should stand by for further direction from the Coast Guard to cooperate with, and not obstruct, any potential investigation of the incident. Frequent and proactive dialogue with the Coast Guard is the best method to manage expectations on both sides.

The bottom line.

Failing to report a marine casualty can have a significant impact. Current civil penalties for failure to report can be in excess of $37,000. Additional penalties can be assessed for failure to conduct drug and alcohol testing (for each occurrence). My recommendation: follow the four steps outlined above to get your response started on the right track and don’t hesitate in communicating with the Coast Guard.


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