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August 11, 2010

NTSB recommends Coast Guard crack down on crew use of cell phones

The National Transportation Safety Board today issued two recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard on the use of cell phones and similar wireless devices aboard vessels.

Currently, the NTSB is investigating two marine accidents where crewmembers on Coast Guard shore-based response vessels involved in collisions had been using cellular telephones while underway to engage in text-messaging activities or conversations unrelated to vessel operations or the mission at hand.

On December 5, 2009, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, a Coast Guard shore-based response vessel collided with a small passenger. Five of the 22 passengers aboard the passenger vessel were injured and treated at a local hospital. A sixth self-reported to an emergency room for treatment.

Fifteen days later, on December 20, 2009, in the harbor of San Diego, California, a Coast Guard shore-based response vessel, carrying five crewmembers, collided with a 24-foot recreational vessel with 13 persons aboard. As a result of the accident, one child died and four passengers on the recreational vessel were seriously injured.

The NTSB has not yet determined the probable causes of the following ongoing investigations, but the Board has confirmed that cellular telephones and similar electronic devices were being used while Coast Guard crewmembers were engaged in vessel operations:

The Coast Guard recently issued its preliminary national policy concerning cell phone usage on their vessels while underway. Therefore, the Safety Board made the following recommendation to the Coast Guard:

Develop and implement national and local policies that address the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels.

Issue a safety advisory to the maritime industry that (1) promotes awareness of the risk posed by the use of cellular telephones and other wireless devices while operating vessels and (2) encourage the voluntary development of operational policies to address the risk.

The Coast Guard issued the following statement in response:

The U.S. Coast Guard is reviewing a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation Wednesday that the service develop policies on the use of cellular phones on Coast Guard vessels as well as issue a safety advisory to the marine industry on the possible dangers of crewmember use of electronic communications devices such as cell phones, smart phones and personal data assistants.

The Coast Guard issued guidance July 16, 2010 to its personnel prohibiting the use of these devices by operators of Coast Guard boats and also restricted their use by other crewmembers.

"While cell phones and texting devices have become ubiquitous in everyday life, the internal Coast Guard policy issued in July prohibits their use on Coast Guard boats without the permission of the coxswain, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman. "The policy also strictly prohibits the use of these devices by the coxswain, or the operator, of a Coast Guard boat."

Cell phones and texting devices may be useful communication tools if boats lose a marine radio signal or as alternate means of communication to a marine radio.

The Coast Guard takes the NTSB recommendations seriously and will provide a response to the letter upon a thorough review.

The NTSB recommendation comes amid investigations into two collisions involving Coast Guard boats but does not draw any conclusions that the use of electronic devices was a cause of those accidents.

NTSB and Coast Guard investigations into those two accidents are ongoing.


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