USCG Faces Questions Over Handling of NTSB Recommendations

Salvors recover the wreckage of Stretch Duck 07, which sank in July with the loss of 17 lives (USCG)

Published Nov 15, 2019 11:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday, the head of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's Marine Safety Office critiqued the U.S. Coast Guard's willingness to tighten safety rules for passenger vessels based on evidence from past small-vessel casualties. The recent casualties involving the dive boat Conception and the amphibious tour boat Stretch Duck 07 have drawn new scrutiny to the USCG's oversight of passenger vessel operations.  

Brian Curtis, the director of the NTSB Marine Safety Office, read into the record a list of prior recommendations which the USCG has not yet implemented - rules that (in NTSB's view) could have mitigated or prevented accidents with multiple loss of life. NTSB's as-yet-outstanding recommendations for domestic passenger vessels include:

- a safety management system (SMS) requirement, comparable to the SMS requirement for other commercial marine operators;
- a preventative maintenance program requirement;
- and a requirement for duck boats to have enough reserve buoyancy to stay afloat when flooded.

"We greatly appreciate that the USCG sees our work as adding value, even if that means we must be at times critical of the organization’s regulations and processes," said Curtis. "Our accident findings and recommendations represent lessons learned at the highest price. To put safety recommendations into action provides a return on investment in lives saved, injuries prevented, and property loss and environmental damage avoided."

Rear Adm. Richard V. Timme, the recently-appointed assistant commandant for prevention policy, said that the USCG has undertaken a wide-spread inspection campaign targeted at overnight passenger vessels of the Conception's type. He indicated that his office will take the results of that inspection campaign, the Conception investigation and the NTSB's recommendations and "relook at . . .  what to do with our small passenger vessel framework."

Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA), whose district includes the site of the Conception tragedy, noted the invaluable service of coastguardsmen but criticized the agency's record as a regulator. 

"I must say that when you look at the Coast Guard's track record of implementing the NTSB's recommendations, it is not a good track record," Rep. Carbajal said, addressing Rear Adm. Timme. "Why have they not been implemented to date?"

"We have to take [each NTSB] recommendation into a different framework - not just the recommendation itself, but the rulemaking, the guidance, the workforce and the ecosystem it would go into," Timme responded. However, he said that in the wake of the Conception fire, his office's post-casualty review would include revisiting prior NTSB recommendations.