Shipping has always been political.
Our nation's maritime laws help establish our relationship to other countries and in myriad ways determine the health of the U.S. economy and the strength of the military.
Many of America's first laws, written shortly after the drafting of the Constitution, were enacted to protect shipowners' interests and ensure that proper duties were collected on imported goods. In return, the U.S. Merchant Marine has played a critical role in every national conflict since 1775, and was indispensable during World War II.
(Notably, American merchant mariners are civilians.
Though they suffered more casualties proportionally during WWII than any division of the armed forces, WWII merchant marine vets only received limited veterans benefits in 1988, 43 years after the war and only after much lobbying.)
In the 21st century, American shipping is regulated by an elaborate network of federal laws—among them, the Jones Act—guided by the Maritime Administration (MARAD), primarily enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The design and interpretation of these laws have changed over the years, shaped by advances in technology, shifting national priorities, and, most importantly, investigations following major accidents such as the loss of El Faro.
The existing laws failed to protect El Faro and the 33 men and women aboard.
Following the sinking, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure held hearings to determine the causes of the tragedy and make legislative changes to prevent such an accident in the future.
The full text of the resultant bill, called the Maritime Safety Act of 2018, can be viewed here.
the maritime safety act of 2018 is a direct response to the el faro tragedy. UPDATE: ThE bill, described below, has become law.
ships must receive timely weather forecasts in both alphanumeric and graphical formats
Captain Davidson relied on outdated weather information from a third-party source in part because the most current forecasts coming from the National Weather Service weren't presented in a format that he could quickly interpret.
all officers and crew aboard commercial vessels must be provided gps-enabled locator beacons
Not one body was recovered from El Faro. Not a single crewman or officer was wearing a personal locator beacon.
high-water alarm sensors must be installed in each cargo hold of a freight vessel. these alarms must ring on the navigation bridge as well as the engine room
If the bilge alarms did go off on El Faro signaling flooding in the holds, the officers on the bridge didn't know until it was too late. Amazingly, high-water alarms were not even required on El Faro, they just happened to be there, installed when the ship was laid up for several years in Baltimore.
all voyage data recorders (black boxes) must be GPS-enabled and installed so that they float free upon immersion
Taxpayers spent more than $3 million to recover El Faro's black box from 15,000 down on the ocean floor. It would have cost a fraction of this if the black box had been installed so that it disengaged from the ship upon immersion, which is common practice on most modern ships.
ships' black boxes must capture both sides of conversations on the bridge, including discussions held over the internal telephone systems
Unfortunately, El Faro's black box only recorded the bridge officers' side of critical conversations with the engineers down below, so we must infer what the engineers said and how they handled the emergency.
post a list of organizations that fail to properly inspect vessels according to U.S. Coast Guard standards & Assess whether the U.S. Coast Guard has a handle on oversight of third-party vessel inspectors
We know from the El Faro incident that the vessel was not properly inspected by the organizations working on behalf of the Coast Guard which is why, for example, she sailed with an expired battery in her emergency beacon. Due to that error, it required painstaking work and weeks of searching for the NTSB to find the sunken vessel on the ocean floor.
audit shipping companies' emergency plans for various vessel types to determine their efficacy
TOTE's "safety management system," in effect a list of protocols to help guide mariners in the event of emergency, failed to address the kinds of problems El Faro's officers and crew faced on the final voyage.
implement a steam plant inspections training program
The aging U.S. merchant fleet has many steamships like El Faro still in operation but most younger U.S. Coast Guard grads are unfamiliar with the nuances of this archaic system.
Triple the U.S. Coast Guard's traveling inspector staff
The inspections program failed El Faro. Part of that blame falls on the U.S. government, which did not provide enough resources to the Coast Guard to maintain an effective inspections staff.
Rethink how a major modification determination is made
The El Faro underwent a major structural change in 2003 but, after much lobbying, TOTE was given permission by the Coast Guard to sail El Faro with woefully outdated safety equipment, including her open lifeboats.
Review how ventilators, fire dampers, and damage stability standards are inspected
Very simply, water was able to enter El Faro and eventually sink her. She had inherent vulnerabilities that would have been understood if she had been properly and thoroughly inspected.