Defense Media Network

Rear Adm. Steve Branham Interview

U.S. Coast Guard District 7 Commander

One of the major new efforts in District 7 is the Cruise Ship Center of Expertise (CoE). What, specifically, does it do?

It focuses on expertise in the cruise ship industry because South Florida is the highest density homeport for cruise ships in the country. It’s really designed to be the focal point within the Coast Guard for that particular aspect of our marine safety duties, from training our people to sharing with and training industry people. We’ve had a number of courses in the past year, since that CoE opened, in which industry people have attended and shared their ideas. The goal is to better understand each other’s duties and needs with respect to managing and regulating that industry.

We ultimately will have 8 to 10 people on staff, making it the “go-to” place for cruise ship industry knowledge within the Coast Guard. We will be able to spin people out from there to other locations, such as LA/Long Beach, Seattle, Alaska, wherever they may need cruise ship expertise.

Commander Rear Adm. Steve Branham

Scott Elphison, senior marine inspector for the Coast Guard Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, addresses a group of students and fellow instructors during a hands-on cruise ship inspection Oct. 31, 2009. The hands-on lesson was part of the Advanced Foreign Passenger Vessel Examination course. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nick Ameen

The center conducted four or five courses in the past year, each about five days long and attended by 30-plus people, roughly 15 percent of those from industry. The courses cover regulations, inspections, cruise ship industry issues. For example, we have had a number of people overboard in recent months and are trying to figure out how to better educate passengers and better design the ships to prevent accidents. Of course, not everyone who leaves a ship does so by accident, but we want to prevent those we can.

Another eight or nine centers of expertise are being contemplated, including vintage vessels – currently planned for the Great Lakes, where some merchant ships are still operating after more than a century – a Towing CoE in Paducah, Ky., another on LNG carriers in Texas and so on. These are all part of an effort to increase the competency and capacity of our marine safety professionals and better interact with industry on a more detailed level to ensure we are all on the same wavelength. We try not only to regulate commerce, but to ensure it flows freely.

In what ways has industry contributed?

Their participation in the courses adds to the discussion. A number of the people we send to these courses from the Coast Guard are entry level, so tapping into the industry participants’ experience and expertise really adds to the class discussions.

I interact personally not only with the cruise lines themselves, meeting with CEOs and presidents and touring ships, but also with the cruise line industry association, headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, which represents about 40 companies in the cruise ship industry. We work to ensure alignment and awareness on requirements and issues.

What are the biggest issues the Coast Guard deals with regarding cruise ships?

Security – making sure they are properly safeguarded in port and under way. We make sure other vessels are kept away from cruise ships in port. At sea, while not so prevalent in the Western Hemisphere, we are aware of the potential for piracy and want to make sure those ships are aware of that threat and what they might do to minimize security issues at sea.

Other issues include ensuring the ships are properly navigated, have properly licensed people on board who are well trained in fire-fighting and meet all the requirements to exercise their lifeboats and so on.

We had a case recently where a cruise ship lost power, except for some emergency lighting, for a number of hours about 100 miles offshore of Puerto Rico. We’re making sure the industry is aware of that possibility and prepared for it. As you can imagine, that kind of event can frighten the passengers and cause some angst on board that could become a bad situation.

The things of most concern for passengers on a ship at sea are proper navigation, avoiding other ships and minimizing the possibility of a fire onboard – and, if one does occur, minimizing it quickly.

We do a huge amount of work in keeping cruise ship passengers safe and commerce flowing through our ports. Tampa and Fort Lauderdale are the two primary ports for fuel for this part of the country and we make sure that flows safely. We also have an LNG terminal in Savannah that people rely on for heating and other things.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...