Interview: Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, USCG

By Joseph Keefe
Rear Admiral Paul Thomas develops and maintains policy, standards and program alignment for waterways management, navigation safety, boating, commercial vessels, ports and facilities, merchant mariner credentialing, vessel documentation, marine casualty investigation, inspection and port state control activities. He serves as the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy overseeing three Coast Guard directorates: Inspections and Compliance, Marine Transportation Systems, and Commercial Regulations and Standards. A specialist in Marine Safety, Security and Environmental Protection, he has served at the Marine Safety Center in Washington, DC and many others before that. His other tours include, among others, service as Commanding Officer of USCGC CAPE ROMAIN. He is a graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2005 he completed a National Security Fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and in 2010 he served as a Senior Fellow to the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group. This month, he weighs in on the entire spectrum of Coast Guard safety and regulatory issues. It is an exciting time in this regard, and the buck stops at his desk. Listen in as he brings us up to speed:
 
With the first BWTS approval out of the way, how many more are in the pipeline and is there a sense of how soon you might be acting on additional applications?
We now have three systems with USCG Type Approval. Two are UV and one is EC. To date, we’ve received 45 letters of intent from manufacturers who plan to conduct testing. We understand that the independent laboratories are currently working with several manufacturers to complete testing and evaluation of additional systems. Based on this ongoing activity, we anticipate that we will receive additional applications for type approval throughout the upcoming year. Vessels owners and operators should study these type approvals carefully and fully understand the technical constraints associated with each. The Coast Guard recognizes that “one size does not fit all” for BWMS. As such, it will take a variety of type approved systems to meet the needs of the global fleet. We’ll continue to work toward additional type approvals and to provide guidance to industry on future compliance date extension requests as appropriate.
 
The Subchapter M towboat rules are ‘settled law’ at this point, but companies still must decide which route that they will take to compliance. What’s your sense on the numbers of firms that will opt for ‘the Coast Guard’ option? 
The Coast Guard recently issued the “Third Party Organization (TPO) Guidebook.” This document intends to help organizations who want to provide third party services and vessels operators considering the use of Third Parties as a compliance strategy. We know the industry is studying the options, but we do not know how many TPOs will enter the market, or how many operators will chose the TPO option. There are many advantages to the TPO option over the Coast Guard option. Operators who chose the TPO option will have much greater flexibility with regard to scheduling inspections, clearing deficiencies, making repairs and managing their fleet wide compliance dates. Any operator who desires to certify more than 25% of their fleet in any given year will have to use a TPO. In addition, there are inherent advantages to the implementation of a Towing Vessel Safety Management System (TSMS) as a means of consistently engaging the entire workforce to ensure compliance with the regulations.
 
The Coast Guard has delegated more and more statutory inspection work to quality third party groups. How much inspection work does the Coast Guard still do, and do you feel the internal knowledge is still there and being grown in-house to support these missions going forward?
Third parties have been and will continue to be an important part of the system we use to ensure the US Fleet is safe, secure and environmentally sound. In fact, we use more than 300 Third Parties for everything from the development of standards, to testing of equipment, type approvals and compliance activities. Subchapter M is the first time we have codified the use of Third Party as a compliance strategy in regulations, but we expect to take that approach more often in the future. All of our Third Party options are designed to improve, rather than remove, Coast Guard oversight while reducing burden and increasing flexibility for the industry. We still do a lot of inspection work “in house,” both as part of our Third Party oversight responsibilities and in cases where Third Parties are not an option or are not employed. Third Parties actually increase Coast Guard ability to maintain proficiency where we need to because they can free us from the tyranny of scheduled inspections and allow our inspectors to focus on the most critical fleets, vessels and systems. As this industry continues to grow in terms of complexity and diversity we expect more and different Third Parties to play important roles in the overall safety net. Cyber Risk management is an emerging area with great potential for Third party standards and compliance.
 
The centralization to WV of the 17 REC’s now seems like ancient history. That said; it was not without its teething issues, but today, the general sense is that the National Maritime Center is doing a good job. Give us some real metrics and benchmark numbers to support that point of view.
In 2009, the Coast Guard set a performance goal for the time it takes to issue a merchant mariner credential from application to issuance at 30 days net processing time. Since that time, the overall net processing time has averaged 28.6 days. While it is clear that the National Maritime Center meets the net processing goal for a majority of mariners, we know that isn’t the case 100% of the time. In 2016, the NMC issued 70,023 merchant mariner credentials with 78 percent being issued within our goal of 30 days net processing time. It is currently taking longer than 30 days net processing time due to an increase in applications that are linked to STCW “gap closing” requirements. We usually see fluctuations in our net processing time throughout the year due to increases in applications in the spring when graduates from the maritime academies apply for their credentials, and in the summer when there is an uptick in seasonal work in the domestic maritime industry. In the past, singular events such as the government furlough in 2013 or changes in CG regulations or international standards have contributed to short-term growth in our application inventory. Centralization was completed in late 2008. Following that event, our average processing time peaked at slightly over 60 days in 2009 but has remained consistently lower than that since, giving us some quantitative assurance that the decision to centralize was a good one. For more detailed information on the NMC’s performance and customer satisfaction reports, please go to http://www.uscg.mil/nmc/reports/default.asp.
 
The Coast Guard, in recent years has made a real effort to recruit maritime industry and maritime academy professionals into the marine safety mission set. How has that been going and just as importantly, are you retaining these personnel?
We understand that the Coast Guard is competing for the same talented professionals as is the industry, Class Societies and others. We do lose highly qualified people to the industry, particularly on the up cycles. Right now, our retention of Maritime Prevention Professionals is high. Nevertheless, we are constantly focused on making the Coast Guard the employer of choice for Maritime Safety professionals. Our Commandant recently issued the Coast Guard Human Capital Strategy. This focused the entire Coast Guard on ensuring our Human Capital System meets mission, service and people needs. The implementation plan for the strategy specifically addresses the Marine Safety workforce. We are looking at how we recruit, train, retain, assign and pay our people. We know that the Maritime Prevention professional of the future will need the skills and enabling technology to keep pace with this industry and we’ve initiated programs to do just that. We will continue to seek out Maritime industry and Maritime Academy professionals as part of our workforce. The Coast Guard provides tremendous opportunity to work in the maritime industry on an outstanding team who makes a positive impact on our nation. 
 
What is the biggest issue on the plate of the marine safety group at this moment? What are you doing to solve it?
The maritime industry faces the triple challenge over the next several decades of increasing the capacity of the Marine Transportation system (MTS), while reducing the environmental footprint in the face of every increasing complexity. This triple challenge drives Coast Guard maritime prevention priorities as well. We are focused on increasing capacity of the MTS through our Future of Navigation initiative even while we increase our internal capacity to provide governance through the workforce and third party initiatives I’ve already mentioned. Another focus area of the Coast Guard is providing effective and reasonable environmental standards and compliance strategies in order to reduce the environmental footprint of the MTS. You see this today in air emissions, ballast water and other waste streams. We strive to put standards in pace that drive the innovation required to meet this environmental challenge, and to develop compliance processes that provide the level playing field the industry demands and deserves. And finally, with regard to complexity, the two biggest issues on our plate our implementing effective safety management systems and managing operational risk associated with cyber systems. We are working hard to update SMS and ISM requirements in both regulation and NVIC, and to put in place basic cyber risk management requirements for both vessels and port facilities.
 
In terms of regulatory issues, SubM, the Ballast Water issue and VGP seem to be ‘answered policy.’ What’s looming large in the porthole next, when can we expect it, and what will it mean for the commercial sector?
Our next big regulatory initiative is an update to Sub N, which governs Outer Continental Shelf Activity. These regulations have not been update in decades, and they have not kept pace with the types of activities and technologies on the OSC today. Our goal is to provide flexible performance based requirements that level the playing field for US and foreign operators on the OSC. We look forward to robust industry participation in the finalization of these regulations.
 
In terms of policing the offshore oil & gas sector, where does the Coast Guard and the BSEE intersect in terms of jurisdiction and where do they have strict separation of powers?
The Coast Guard and BSEE understand that the most effective oversight of offshore oil and gas doesn’t come about from strict adherence to agency jurisdictional boundaries or separation of powers. Instead, we have focused on leveraging the authorities and capabilities of both agencies to provide seamless oversight in a manner that improves safety and environmental performance and simplifies compliance for the industry. That is why the CG and BSEE meet regularly at both the national and regional levels, we conduct joint training and operations, we coordinate on policy, regulations, investigations and corrective actions, and we meet jointly with the regulated industry. We have established a joint “scorecard” to help us gauge safety and environmental performance on the OCS, and we are working on better procedures to “hand off” issues from one agency to the other when jurisdictional boundaries are encountered. This year the CG and BSEE will issue our first joint report on the State of the US OCS Regulated Activity.
 
Dynamic Positioning (DP) training and certification is a hot issue. Where does the Coast guard get involved with certification of both the training facilities and then, with Coast Guard credentialing and/or STCW requirements – if at all? 
The U.S. Coast Guard does not currently approve courses for dynamic positioning training. However, we note the potential for a loss of position on a MODU or other vessel engaged in Outer Continental Shelf activities that could result in serious consequences for human safety and the environment during certain critical operations. Taking into account these and other factors, including the increasing complexity of these systems, we are developing regulations (see 79 FR 70943) to establish minimum training standards in order to improve the safety level of people and the property involved in such operations and ensure the protection of the environment in which they operate.
 
In a down maritime economy, one of the first things to “go” tends to be spending on safety. What has the Coast Guard seen in terms of measurable changes in the rate of accidents, oil spills, etc?
Overall, major marine casualty rates have remained consistent over the last 10 years. However, reportable marine casualties have actually been trending downward since 2015. We believe that the publication of the Marine Casualty Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular had an impact on both the reporting of marine casualties by industry and the investigation of marine casualties by investigating officers. 
 
What is the Coast Guard’s marine safety division doing best, in your opinion, at moment? Give us an example of that in play. And, what could you be doing better?
There is no doubt the best part of the Coast Guard Prevention program is our workforce at the Sector, MSU and MSD levels. What we do best, and have always done very well, is provide a geographically distributed workforce in the port who know the industry, the area and the issues. Better than any other Federal regulator we are able to bring local knowledge and common sense to bear on operational decisions that happen at the port level. We will always cherish and nurture our relationship with the maritime community at all levels, but particularly at the port level where the most important work gets done every day. Of course, an empowered, decentralized workforce brings challenges associated with ensuring consistency across the nation. We will always be working on improving our consistency in a way that preserves the advantage of local flexibility. We rely on industry feedback to help us identify areas where additional guidance is needed to ensure the proper degree of consistency.
 
Looking at the domestic commercial waterfront today, what one thing would you change were it in your immediate power to do so?
If I could change anything it would be to increase the public awareness of and appreciation for the significance of the commercial waterfront in terms of our national security and prosperity. Our nation relies on our ports and waterways and on the maritime industry; but most of us don’t realize that. The Coast Guard is committed to ensuring this vital MTS remains safe, secure, environmentally sound, productive and efficient. 
 
 
(As published in the February 2017 edition of Marine News)
Marine News Magazine, page 12,  Feb 2017

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