At the outset of the pandemic, as global travel restrictions prevented seafarers, port workers, and nautical inspectors from transiting borders to board vessels, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Registry quickly recognized the need for flexibility in conducting inspections and surveys. That flexibility led to protocols and procedures for remote inspections, which began 25 March 2020. While remote inspections are not a preferred method for crew or inspectors, they have been useful in maintaining oversight of safety operations during the pandemic and globally 925 have been conducted as of 25 January 2021 with around 24% conducted in the Asian region. In January 2021 the Asian region conducted over 90% of their inspections in person.
Protecting the safety of vessels and crew in a rapidly fluctuating world has required precision level coordination and communication between flag State inspectors, operators, crew, port State control (PSC) authorities, and local health officials. In the last several years, the Registry has invested in expanding technical and fleet operations capabilities worldwide. In addition to hiring leadership with Australian Maritime and Safety Administration (AMSA) experience, the Registry has also hired an inspector in Manila, and contracted with reliable third-party inspectors throughout Asia, increasing the number of regional inspection assets to more than 60. The geographic disbursement of the team has been critical in facilitating physical inspections during the pandemic.
“We’re planning ahead for inspections with the designated person ashore (DPA), however changes occur rapidly and frequently, so our team plans for a variety of inspection scenarios,” said Captain Sascha Dyker, Fleet Operations Manager (IRI Hong Kong). “Having a local inspector who can comply with changing guidance and understands the local authorities and situation has been critical,” he continued.
As the first region to grapple with the COVID-19 situation, IRI’s Asia offices adapted quickly to the new environment, leading to the development of revised protocols and assessment procedures. To facilitate physical inspections where possible, the Registry developed a strict risk assessment, which every inspector must complete prior to boarding a vessel. That assessment, shared with the fleet operations team, is often followed by an assessment from the operator. Inspectors who are then determined to be low risk may complete additional local and national assessments and regular COVID-19 testing before a determination is made to allow the inspector aboard the vessel. Close working relationships with PSC authorities and terminal operators allow the Registry’s team to communicate efficiently and effectively with the inspector, operator, and crew, facilitating compliance with national and local health regulations and requirement while protecting the safety of vessels and crew.
“Some countries have stopped regular PSC inspections, only conducting inspections on high-risk vessels. That makes our inspections critical to ensure compliance with safety regulations to protect the vessel and her crew. So far, we have not seen an increase in detentions or deficiencies since the pandemic,” said Capt. Dyker.
Vaccine distribution has raised hope for an end to the pandemic. However, only 52 IMO Member States have identified seafarers as key workers, and only Singapore has moved port workers to a priority group.
“Vaccine distribution is being handled by national governments. Inspectors, safety, and operations team members will need to be vaccinated in accordance with local guidelines and protocols,” said Capt. Dyker. “Regionally, we expect more ports to open to physical inspections as port workers, pilots and inspectors get vaccinated. We are helping our team on the ground in every way possible.”
While inspections can proceed remotely or with close coordination with authorities, no solid solution exists for crew change.
“Without a doubt, our biggest challenge remains crew change,” said Capt. Dyker. “Fluctuating travel restrictions make it difficult to enact a crew change – something that is absolutely critical to the safety of seafarers and vessels.”