Sustained focus on domestic ferry safety

Heike Deggim explains how the IMO is tackling domestic ferry safety

Sustained focus on domestic ferry safety
Representatives from IMO member states come together regularly to discuss safety challenges and best practices

By Jon Ingleton |

Please describe the current regulatory environment for domestic ferry safety.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is the main international treaty covering, among other things, the design and construction of ships, their operation, stability, life-saving appliances, fire protection, carriage of cargoes, and radio communications.

While SOLAS Chapter V (Safety of navigation) applies to all ships on all voyages (with some specific exceptions), the other chapters of the Convention do not apply to passenger ships that are not engaged in international trade. This means that domestic ferries – those engaged in trade within a single country’s national waters – do not come under the international regulations. Such ships are often referred to as non-SOLAS or non-Convention ships and need to comply with domestic (national) regulations. Nonetheless, many countries base their national regulations on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards.

What are the fundamental flaws in this system that the IMO and others are seeking to resolve?

Fundamentally, all passengers on all ships worldwide should be able to expect the same level of safety. The SOLAS Convention regulates international shipping, recognising that ships trade between nations and therefore global standards are needed. This means that ships trading domestically are subject to only domestic regulations. However, IMO has a mandate and remit in its establishing convention “to encourage the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety and efficiency of navigation”. While the SOLAS regulations apply to ships on international voyages, IMO has supported the development of GlobalReg standards, a comprehensive modular set of standards comprising harmonised regulations and model national legislation applicable to non-Convention ships.

Bearing in mind the unacceptably high number of ferry accidents with often high or very high numbers of fatalities, the IMO Secretariat has looked at publicly available information related to domestic ferry safety. More than 30 apparent causes of accidents have been identified including: second-hand ferries being unfit for purpose, often due to botched conversions; operational issues such as overloading and overcrowding; poor management and lack of shoreside support; and a lack of, or inadequate, regulation and enforcement. Consequently, there are a range of issues that all need to be addressed.

What are the specific barriers to adopting a global approach to domestic ferry safety?

Domestic ferry services may ply specific routes and there may be differences in climate, weather, length of voyage and so on. There may also be big differences in demand and supply through the year. But some things are universal. For example, there is a fundamental need for seaworthy vessels, including fully functioning communications and navigation equipment, life-saving appliances and fire-fighting gear. Crew training, good management and shoreside support are also critical, whatever the voyage.

Furthermore, depending on a country’s territory, some domestic voyages may be hundreds of nautical miles offshore and take more than 24 hours.

An example of how IMO can help address universal challenges is a one-minute safety video, commissioned by IMO, which illustrates the need to follow instructions and avoid overcrowding which can lead to vessels capsizing. The video is a simple animation that can be understood universally and shown in ferry terminals and on national TV channels. It was commissioned following a series of IMO-sponsored regional discussion fora on ferry safety held in the Asia and Pacific region. Overloading and overcrowding were highlighted as common and potentially deadly problems for passenger ships plying inland waterways or operating on domestic and inter-island services.

The IMO’s senior technical body, Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), has agreed to prepare model regulations for domestic ferry safety which can be transposed into domestic law by IMO Members. The completion of the model regulations will be followed by a programme of technical assistance to help with their implementation.

Who are the primary stakeholders responsible for driving this issue forward?

There are a range of stakeholders. These include IMO Member States, in particular those where lots of ferry services are operating, and United Nations entities, such as United Nations Development Programme and UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific, as well as regional organisations, including the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and others. In addition, there are the international organisations in consultative status at IMO, in this case in particular the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) and Interferry. IMO also works closely with its international training institutes, the World Maritime University (WMU) and the IMO International Maritime Law Institute.

IMO has a role in bringing different stakeholders together and arranging training and workshops. Other entities might contribute expertise and help to bring people together. National regulation of ferry safety needs to be robust. Buy-in from ferry operators is crucial and this may be done at a more local level. Raising awareness with ferry passengers themselves is important too.

How have the IMO and others responded to IMO secretary general Ki-tack Lim’s call for greater investment to tackle domestic safety issues?

In collaboration with partners such as Interferry, the IMO has been working with countries and partners in the Asia-Pacific region for a number of years to address the safety of domestic ferries, through regional fora and workshops. A set of guidelines (the Manila Statement) on the safe operation of coastal and inter-island passenger ships not engaged on international voyages was adopted in 2015 by an international conference held in the Philippines and organised by IMO in collaboration with the Government of the Philippines, IACS, Interferry and the WMU. There have also been several sessions of the ASEAN Regional Forum Workshop on Ferry Safety, bringing country officials together.

An Expert Group Meeting on Improving Domestic Ferry Safety in Support of Safe Maritime Connectivity in Asia and the Pacific took place in March 2020 (held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic). This meeting adopted the Bangkok Declaration on Enhancing Domestic Ferry Safety – which supports the development of a Convention on Domestic Ferry Safety, Intergovernmental Agreement on Domestic Ferry Safety, framework Model Regulations on Domestic Ferry Safety, or a combination of all.

Please describe what you see as the ideal future regulatory environment for domestic ferry safety.

This is something Member States will decide and could take different forms. As already stated, we are looking at developing model regulations on domestic ferry safety. The MSC, consisting of IMO Member States, will eventually decide which form the final product will take and it is, therefore, important that Member States with major domestic ferry operations are engaged in this process.

What are the key future milestones (planned and not yet set) as you head towards this goal?

The last session of the MSC in June 2019 included the issue of measures to improve domestic ferry safety on its agenda, with an estimated four sessions needed to complete the work. This work will focus on developing model regulations on domestic ferry safety; providing guidance on the incorporation of model regulations on domestic ferry safety in domestic law; developing online training material on domestic ferry safety; and continuing to provide technical assistance to countries in need through IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme. The next MSC session is expected to consider the next steps.

A key element after finalising the set of model regulations will be capacity-building, including training on how to incorporate these regulations in national law. There also needs to be a focus on instilling a safety culture and raising awareness among all local stakeholders, including ferry operators and passengers, on the safety issues connected with the operation of domestic ferries.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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