In the wake of the Coast Guard Authorization Act, demand for safety training is skyrocketing
By Kathy A. Smith
Progressive and up-to-date safety training and equipment for commercial fishermen is critical to this most dangerous of sea-going careers. And the organizations that provide lifesaving products and services to the industry are meeting a wide variety of needs across the country.
“Our demand for commercial fishermen training is skyrocketing,” says Rick Petersen, Training Coordinator for the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA), a non-profit corporation that provides safety training to the commercial fishing industry as well as recreational boaters, agency personnel and school children. “It definitely has something to do with regulation changes.”
The new Coast Guard Authorization Act, which became law in October 2010, has outlined pending training regulations for commercial fishermen but it is not yet known when those regulations will come into effect. “The whole fishing industry is confused about it because it’s a law but not a written regulation that is enforceable yet, and people don’t quite know what the specific regulations are going to require,” says Jerry Dzugan, AMSEA’s Executive Director.
Petersen explains: “People are worried. For instance, in California, a lot of fishermen have heard a rumor that this law was going to be enacted on August 1st, but it’s not. They are worried that they won’t be able to make a living unless they get this training, so we did a huge push in California for training.” “There will be a phase-in period,” adds Dzugan. “There is a document on our website with both the current and future training requirements listed.”
AMSEA has taught safety training courses to fishermen around the United States for more than 25 years, and also run their acclaimed train-the-trainer course called Marine Safety Instructor Training. “We have instructors working from Alaska to American Samoa, Washington, California, the entire Gulf of Mexico, and from Florida to Maine,” says Petersen.
“We’ve doubled the number of drill conductors over last year,” adds Dzugan. “In fact, we’re getting classes with too many people in them.” Dzugan says that in order to meet present and future training requirements, there needs to be a lot more training infrastructure in the industry. “Ideally, we’d have a port-based instructor network around the US where people with a fishing background would teach their peers, and that way, the training is relevant to their fisheries and affordable and accessible because it’s local.”
Dzugan points out that though there has been a lot of improvement in survivability of vessel disasters because of survival equipment and training, there has been very little improvement in falls overboard. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 31 percent of the fatalities in Alaska in the past 10 years were falls overboard. “It actually runs between 25 and 50 percent, depending on the part of the country. The Gulf of Mexico has the highest number of man overboards. In fact, in the 70s and 80s, it would be typical to hear about five or six vessels lost with all hands. Now just having one vessel lost with all hands is a rather unique experience, maybe one a year.”
He notes that stability (how the shifting of weights and actions of moments affect the safety of vessels) is the cause of 50 percent of fatalities, so AMSEA is spending more time on this issue, along with damage control. “We’re offering those classes now although it’s not required yet.”
As part of AMSEA’s safety training, they’ve devised a quick checklist called Seven Steps to Survival.
- Recognition: recognize you’ve got a problem.
- Inventory: what can help you, what can hurt you?
- Shelter: protect yourself from the elements.
- Signals: attract attention and ask for help.
- Play: positive mental attitude, keeping spirits up and fighting depression.
They also emphasize that in an emergency, staying with the boat is critical. Dzugan reports that last summer a fishing vessel working out of Yakutat, Alaska capsized crossing a river bar in good weather. There were three men aboard; one had recently taken AMSEA’s training. He stayed with the boat and survived while the other two men went off swimming and subsequently perished.
“Survival starts with staying onboard your vessel, keeping her upright and afloat and not cutting corners that increase risk,” say Julie Keim of Compass Courses in Edmonds, Washington. “With 85% of maritime incidents and injuries caused by human error, minimizing that is key.”
“We like to focus on fatigue management, safety equipment familiarization, operational equipment familiarizing and drill instructor training in many of our courses,” she says. “And all Compass Courses classes are exportable. We have delivered classes in many locations throughout the US stretching from Tampa, Florida to Alaska. We’ve even had the pleasure of delivering classes to the US Virgin Islands.”
Keim says she’s seeing an overall increase in a safety culture, that people understand it has real value and deserves focus, study and practice, noting that today’s fishermen and owners realize that safety also increases their bottom line. Additionally, she says crewmembers are more aware than ever about licensing and documentation opportunities due to the sweeping use of the Internet. For instance, she notes that their sea time, together with Compass Courses’ 4-day Lifeboatman (PSC) class and one-week AB class, along with their USCG application, enables fishermen to get their AB document. Compass Courses also delivers a two-week 100-ton class licence course that is in lieu of exam, with the US Coast Guard testing done right in the classroom.
Karen Conrad, Executive Director of the Seattle-based North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association (NPFVOA) says: “We’ve trained more than 40,000 people to date and what I’ve noticed is every year, we’ve increased the number of people we’ve been training. That to me is a good thing.”
She says the influx comes from both pending regulation changes as well as wake-up calls. “When a catastrophic incident occurs, people get jolted into taking safety more seriously. When a vessel capsizes, people in the industry start thinking what would they do if they had to get 120 people from the ship into the water? How would they do that?”
NPFVOA has been dedicated to providing safety training courses for commercial fishermen since 1985. Among their 13 USCG-approved courses, their Medical Emergencies at Sea course is specifically designed for the industry. Based on the Red Cross CPR/First Aid curriculum, it also covers medical evacuations, hypothermia and other items specific to the maritime industry. NPFVOA also offers OSHA safety courses for crew onboard processing trawlers.
Additionally, the organization provides various non-Coast Guard certified courses such as in-the-water survival training. Conrad states: “Basically, we take anyone like processors and run them through a two-hour program where they put on the immersion suit, learn what to do in case of an emergency, and how to jump off the ship. They actually jump into the pool off a diving board and learn how to huddle up, keep together, and enter a liferaft.”
Teaching safety training that is transferable to a company’s vessel is paramount. “The first thing we do is assess the class level,” says Jon Kjaerulff, Director of Fremont Maritime in Seattle that provides training on preparing for fire, flooding, abandon ship, man overboard emergencies, and more. “We need to know if anyone has ever had any real-life emergencies, what kind of vessels they’re on, what kind of survival gear they have, how far offshore they work, how big their crew is, etc. For example, there is a really big difference in how you would train a classroom full of guys who work a four-man crew on a Bristol Bay gillnetter which is rarely more than three miles from shore as opposed to a factory trawler or processing barge that might have over 100 people on it, working hundreds of miles from shore.”
Using an up-to-date Station Bill is also critical he says. “We talk about the importance of it because it is the foundation of their response plan.” He also points out that the Station Bill may need updating for different times of the year. “Some fishing boats during one season might have four people on and at other times of the year, they might have eight,” he adds. “Making sure the Station Bill takes all of that into consideration and that the people are able to fulfill their responsibilities is very important.”
Fremont’s one and two-day survival classes incorporate many of the above classroom-taught skills and also put participants through their paces on the water. “We have them don immersion suits and tell them their first responsibility is to make sure it’s in operable condition,” explains Kjaerulff. “Then we have them put the suit back in the bag, set it up as if they are going to use it to abandon the vessel, then we launch a liferaft and go through the liferaft’s features,” he says, referring to the fact that some have the entry way on the side, some have two entry ways, and that those details can be significant in a life and death situation.
Next, a practical drill is carried out. Students put their immersion suits on, get into the water and swim 50 to 60 feet, and then have to right an upside down liferaft, climb in, get back out and swim over to a rescue boat. Kjaerulff does the in-water training in a harbor in order to make it as realistic as possible. “The act of swimming around in the harbor, seeing boats around them, getting the perspective of what it would feel like to do this for real is crucial. Typically even in a very controlled situation, participants still have problems staying together or communicating with each other. And we can say, ‘look, if you had this kind of problem on a nice day, with no seas and plenty of visibility, imagine what it could be like in other circumstances.’”
And he emphasizes that fishermen need to know what brand of immersion suit they have because each of them has a little different design, and there have been fatalities documented where someone died when most of the crew survived simply because that person had the wrong size suit. “It is the captain’s responsibility to make sure that there is a suit that fits everyone onboard.”
“The US Coast Guard recommends that survival suits are pressure tested,” says Shawn Simmons, owner of Marine Safety Services (MSS) in Seattle, a company that sells and services marine safety equipment and devices. “We’re seeing survival suits that have never been pressure tested for 10 plus years, and they look great, but when you pressure test them, you can find little leaks.” Simmons explains that different people may wear the same suits at different times during drills, and that suits stored in bags can deteriorate in ways that are not immediately recognizable to the naked eye.
“An older immersion suit is just like an old tire. They sit there, cracks are created, then leaks. In a pressure test, you’re actually seeing if all the seams and zippers are fully intact,” he says. “There are also pressure relief valves on the feet. Once you jump in the water, you have all that air that’s trapped in your survival suit. It actually purges the air out so it has somewhere to go and then it sticks to your body. Making sure those valves work properly is important, too.”
Guardian liferafts are one of MSS’ most popular items. Made by SSPI, the Guardian raft has a double floor, a double canopy, a non-puncture boarding ramp, zipper doors, an LED strobe light that blinks on the exterior as well as an internal LED light. “The old school lighting system wasn’t the greatest, whereas this blinking strobe light is a lot more visible. And that’s really important when it’s 2 o’clock in the morning with 30-foot waves and you’re trying to see something,” Simmons says. Liferafts for 10 people and below have one entryway and portholes enough for all. For 10 people and above, there are dual entryways.
Simmons is also finding a lot of customer demand in EPIRBs with internal GPS. “When an internal GPS goes off, it keeps updating and pinpointing the location within a hundred feet, which is much better than a standard unit.”
DBC Marine Safety Systems Ltd. carries a variety of liferafts and rescue boats. In business for more than 30 years, they manufacture their own brand at their Richmond, BC-based facility and also distribute Zodiac Liferafts and SOLAS-approved boats to commercial fishing clients across North America. Sales Manager Mark Hansen says that he sees the marine industry overall putting more emphasis on safety, but he also knows there are still some commercial fishermen who don’t put liferafts on their boats. “It’s an unfortunate reality.”
A future change in extending the servicing interval for liferafts is coming, according to Hansen. “Right now, liferafts have to be serviced on an annual basis, which can be costly, especially to those who work in remote areas, because of the cost of shipping the liferaft away to be serviced.” he says. “When the Coast Guard makes the certification change – and we don’t know when that will be yet – this product will allow servicing intervals to be extended to two and a half years.”
Rain gear is another critical piece of must-have safety equipment. A relatively new rain gear product for commercial fishermen has been gaining attention. The Regatta Fisherman’s Oilskins, distributed by Seattle-based Global Marine Safety (GMS), have the traditional style bibs and a jacket, but the unique difference is the bibs have flotation built into the chest and back.
This product, designed by fishermen for fishermen, has been on the global market for about six years and was introduced to the US market back in 2009 by GMS. Owner Mike Brockmann says it has been a challenge to get fishermen to try something new but the industry is really drawn to the safety feature of the product. The Fisherman’s Oilskins were involved in a 2009 PFD study conducted by NIOSH and received high performance marks from a number of fishing groups, and most specifically the Bristol Bay gillnetters.
“The whole idea of building the flotation into the rain gear that they wear on a daily basis is pretty novel,” he explains. “Wearing anything new takes getting used to, but once we get fishermen into the bibs with flotation, they love it. And the fishermen’s wives love it, too. They think it’s a fantastic idea because they know their husbands are wearing their Regatta bibs, so they’ve essentially got their lifejacket on.”
GMS also carries a line of commercial-grade jackets like the parka-length Harbor Float jacket which has tape-sealed seams that make it waterproof, and the closed cell foam flotation is quilted into the lining of the jacket, making it easier to wear than the traditional bulkier float jackets. “A lot of fishing captains and dock workers like them because not only does it float you, it’s comfortable and keeps you warm and dry,” says Brockmann. “Wearing a product like this, whether it’s a Regatta product or any safety product, it’s smart fishing. If you fish smart, you fish longer. If we can get fishermen and women into wearing safety gear while they’re working, we’re going to have a lot fewer casualties, and ultimately that’s our goal.”
American Seafoods Company’s safety culture is strongly in place. “Our goal is to create the safest possible work environment for our employees and have all of our workers confident in their ability to address and correctly respond to any threat to personal safety on board our vessels,” says R. Alan Davis, Safety and Compliance Manager.
The Seattle-headquartered company believes in continuous safety training, the execution of effective up-to-date safety plans, an open door approach to hearing employee’s safety concerns, and correctly implementing safety policies that meet or exceed regulations. Davis says last October, new changes were made to the Lockout Tags PLUS regulations, which have expanded requirements for the control of hazardous energy such as electricity, fuel and hydraulic pressures. “These include important safeguards to prevent accidental ‘start-up’ of powered machinery where workers are in positions where they could be harmed.”
Additionally, he notes that the commercial fishing sector of the industry has developed several safety initiatives that have made their way into regulatory requirements. “We are pleased that our sector could provide this sort of ‘working laboratory’ for the development of safety equipment and practices that have been more broadly implemented across the maritime industry.”
It’s clear that safety training and equipment is a vital part of the commercial fishing industry, and the better prepared workers are, the better the outcome will be, should disaster strike. “All decisions are made in the wheelhouse,” adds Dzugan. “So the better you can train that person in the wheelhouse to make better decisions, the less risk there is to all.”