As of July 20th, 2018, all tugboat and towboats in the US above 26 feet must comply with the new Subchapter M regulation.
There are two options to becoming compliant with Subchapter M. The first is the Coast Guard option and the second involves writing a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS) and hiring a Third Party Organization (TPO), to conduct audits and surveys of your company.
Initially, when the regulation came into effect, it was widely anticipated that about 75% of companies would choose the TPO option and 25% would go with the Coast Guard option. However, that was just not the case. Today, there are approximately 6000 vessels in the fleet and roughly 2500 are currently covered by a TPO. This leaves 3500 vessels who have either chosen Coast Guard or are still deciding.
If your company chooses to obtain their COI through the Coast Guard, you do not need to have a TSMS (towing safety management system) in place. However as of July 20th, 2019 the company will still have to track and manage a Health and Safety Plan which has weekly and monthly tasks that must be documented and tracked. It’s a lot lighter of an option than building out a TSMS and having a TPO, and it’s free. However free doesn’t always mean better. There are some factors companies need to be mindful of if they choose this option.
“Smaller operators may not have dealt with the Coast Guard before and expect them to build a list of things that need to be fixed and come back to check. Whereas what could happen if the Coast Guard finds you’re not in compliance, is you get shut down and don’t receive your COI. TPOs are partners in the process and will help you with it whereas the Coast Guard is checking to see if it’s done or not,” says Rob Keister, Manager of Compliance and Special Projects at leading TPO Sabine Surveyors.
To schedule your COI with the Coast Guard, companies must book 90 days out and be confident that that boat is going to be available for the inspection. Often this is a challenge for companies because they’re not sure if the boat is going to be working or it’s exact location.
“With the large number of vessels selecting the Coast Guard option, and vessels having to book 90 days out, what happens if you can’t get it done before the required timeframe? No one know what the repercussions are,” says Keister. With the TSMS option, scheduling isn’t an issue. TPOs can be booked 24 hours in advance or possibly the same day if needed taking that strain off company’s time frames.
If you get a COI with the Coast Guard, its valid for 5 years, just like the TSMS option, however, unlike TSMS, the Coast Guard must come every year to reinspect the vessel. This annual inspection has to be booked 30 days out with the Coast Guard which again, can pose a challenge for operators with less predictable work. If you get a COI with a TPO, the company can do an internal survey every year and send it to the TPO to review on their schedule.
Another thing companies may not know is how deficiencies are handled with the Coast Guard. “If the Coast Guard is inspecting your vessel and a deficiency is discovered, they will write you what’s called a Coast Guard 835 and enter it into their system. This gets published on a publicly accessible webpage. Anyone can go and look up deficiencies on this vessel including the company’s customers or prospects which could have an impact on customer relations. If you move forward with the TSMS option, it’s not publicly accessible information.”
Subchapter M has now been in effect for just over two months and companies are still getting prepared for their COIs. “Companies have between now and January 1 to really pick which option they’re going with because they need to have their TSMS certificate 6 months prior to the first COI which needs to be issued before the July 20th, 2019 deadline,” says Keister. What option is your company choosing to become compliant?