Safety Management Systems for Domestic Passenger Vessels

For nearly two decades, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has identified issues associated with failed safety management and oversight as the probable cause or a contributing factor in some of the most serious casualties involving U.S. passenger vessels, such as the deadly allision of passenger ferry with a pier in 2003 at the St. George's ferry terminal at full speed with a maintenance pier. Eleven passengers died and 70 were injured. Property damage was in excess of $8 million dollars. And fires in 2003 on board the U.S. small passenger vessel Port Imperial Manhattan was in route to Weehawken, New Jersey from the borough of Manhattan when a fire broke out in the engine room. There were no deaths; however, one passenger was treated for smoke inhalation. Property damage was estimated at $1.2 million dollars.

Safety Management Systems for Domestic Passenger Vessels
Safety Management Systems for Domestic Passenger Vessels

Domestic passenger vessels are subject to comprehensive design, construction, and licensing regulations, but current regulations do not specifically require vessel owners and operators to develop and implement a formal, written SMS. It appears that is about to change.

There are approximately 6,500 U.S. flag commercial vessels carry more than 200 million passengers annually on domestic voyages in the United States.

In 2010, Congress amended 46 U.S.C. Chapter 32 by expanding the applicability to include a passenger vessel or small passenger vessel transporting more passengers Under 33 CFR part 96, as it is currently written and enforced, a vessel must implement an SMS if carrying 12 or more passengers on an international voyage.


Overview of Safety Management System (SMS)


The IMO developed the International Safety Management (ISM) Code and adopted it as part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, making compliance with the ISM Code mandatory for certain oceangoing ships. An SMS is a structured and documented set of procedures enabling company and vessel personnel to effectively implement safety and environmental protection policies that are specific to that company or vessel. An SMS may include, among other things, procedures and policies for vessel operations, maintenance of equipment, responding to specific types of incidents, for reporting accidents or other non-conformities, and for conducting internal audits and reviews. This tool, if effectively use, can reduce human factor error and subsequent harm to people, property, and the environment.


Owners and operators should consider developing an SMS now. The Coast Guard and the Passenger Vessel Association have long encouraged, but not required, domestic passenger vessel owners and operators to voluntarily adopt an SMS and have provided “templates” in this regard. Vessel owners and operators who prepare now and voluntarily develop an SMS that is specifically tailored for the scale and scope of their operations will likely find a much easier transition to the new regulations.

Before developing and implementing an SMS, vessel operators should conduct a detailed risk assessment of operations. This will help ensure that the most significant safety and compliance risks are adequately addressed in the SMS.