Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Preiser (surfman #535) operates a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat in the surf near Brookings, Oregon, Dec. 13, 2019. Surfman is the pinnacle of the five certifications available to boat-crew members, and Coast Guardsmen. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Preiser)

GAO: More Information Needed to Assess Efficacy and Costs of Coast Guard’s Vessel Survival Craft Requirements

Appropriate lifesaving equipment can help increase the chance of surviving boat or ship accidents. This includes survival craft, such as lifeboats, which keep accident victims out of the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses accident data to determine which lifesaving equipment should be required on boats and ships. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Coast Guard failed to collect some key data for assessing equipment effectiveness. The watchdog also found opportunities for the Coast Guard to improve its estimates of the cost of survival craft requirements.

Coast Guard data show that during fiscal years 2010 through 2019 most people survived vessel accidents, and out-of-water survival craft, such as a lifeboat, was used more often than other types of lifesaving equipment. However, the Coast Guard has limited information about people involved in vessel accidents, such as their date of birth, potential disability, and type of lifesaving equipment used, if any. For example, Coast Guard data did not include the type of lifesaving equipment used, if any, for about 45 percent (1,733 of 3,847) of accident survivors. By requiring its investigators to collect date of birth, known disability, and use of lifesaving equipment information of survivors and casualties of vessel accidents, the service could better assess the efficacy of lifesaving equipment.

The Coast Guard estimated costs and benefits of requiring vessel owners to carry out-of-water survival craft in its 2013 and 2017 reports to Congress, but GAO has found that the estimates were not fully accurate or complete. It says the Coast Guard did not use economically justifiable discount rates to account for the time value of money nor document its rationale, as recommended by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In the 2013 report, this resulted in estimated net costs $32.3 million higher than if it had. 

GAO adds that Coast Guard’s 1991 guidance for determining cold water areas (59 degrees Fahrenheit and below) is based on outdated water temperature data. The guidance designates cold water areas where commercial vessels are to carry certain lifesaving equipment. GAO’s analysis of the most recent water temperature data found that temperatures increased off the Atlantic coast for all months and Pacific coast for 10 months of the year—which does not match temperatures in the guidance. For example, the data shows that, for the month of September, waters measuring over 59 degrees expanded across almost half the area in the Gulf of Maine that the Coast Guard designated as “cold water” in 1991. By reviewing its cold water areas determination guidance to determine if it reflects current temperature data, and if necessary revising it, the Coast Guard would better ensure commercial vessels are operating with appropriate lifesaving equipment.

GAO makes four recommendations, including that the Coast Guard require investigators collect data about people’s use of lifesaving equipment in accidents, fully implement cost estimate best practices for out-of-water survival craft requirements, and if necessary, update cold water areas determinations.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with all but one of the recommendations – that the Coast Guard revise its vessel accident investigations guidance to require Coast Guard investigators to collect date of birth, known disability, and use of lifesaving equipment of people in vessel accidents who were casualties due to water immersion, or who used lifesaving equipment. DHS stated that Coast Guard Marine Casualty Investigating Officers are not required by statute or regulation to collect date of birth, known disability, and use of lifesaving equipment of people in vessel accidents who were casualties due to water immersion, or who used lifesaving equipment. It stated that Investigating Officers already collect this type of information on a case-by-case basis when the information is needed for a specific investigative purpose, such as when an officer determines that an involved subject’s disability was a contributing factor to a marine casualty. 

DHS expects to implement the remaining recommendations by the end of the year.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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