- Lifesaving & Fire Safety

7/28/2015: IMO Polar Code background and update from Arctic symposium

Maritime Commons attended the 6th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations to provide you with a wrap-up of what was covered by Coast Guard presenters.

Capt. John Mauger, Polar Code expert, provided background and updates on the International Maritime Organization’s, or IMO’s, Polar Code. For those of you who were unable to attend the symposium, we’ve summarized the comments for you here. This blog post is not his speech ‘as delivered’ but provides highlights from his remarks for your informational purposes.

Delivered by Capt. John Mauger

Over the last five years, there has been increased focus and activity on protecting the people and environment in the polar regions. The recent adoption of the IMO Polar Code is one of several key accomplishments achieved as a result of the increased efforts. In May 2015, the IMO completed their work on the mandatory portion of the Polar Code, when member governments finalized and adopted the environmental provisions. This action complemented the work completed in November 2014, when IMO member governments finalized and adopted the safety provisions. Now we have a uniform, international, regulatory standard that will come into effect January 1, 2017. There is opportunity for additional work to supplement the regulatory text by providing a better understanding of the requirements and disseminate more thorough guidance to promote the consistent application of the Code. But these supplementary efforts should not overshadow the importance of the recent adoption of a mandatory international regulatory standard to protect people by promoting maritime safety and environmental protection in the polar regions.

When we gather to talk about implications from changing environmental conditions within the polar regions, the topic of governance in these unique regions of the globe are always part of the discussion. Maritime governance is IMO’s niche; the Polar Code is built on top of this existing and proven governance structure. It’s one of the strengths of the IMO Polar Code. As we talk more about implementation, you’ll see divergent vessel traffic patterns through the Bering Strait. The United States could have taken unilateral actions to promulgate standards for vessels coming into our ports or entering our waters; however, without an international framework in place we couldn’t have affected ships operating in the international waters near our borders. The IMO Polar Code puts a truly global standard in place to provide maritime safety and environmental protection in the polar regions.

What is the Polar Code?

The Polar Code is a new mandatory code with specific requirements to enhance maritime safety, training and environmental protection in the polar regions. The code consists of two parts, each of which includes both mandatory and recommendatory sections. Part I addresses safe design, construction and operation; it was adopted in November 2014 and comes into effect January 2017. Part II addresses environmental protection; it was adopted in May 2015 and comes into effect in January 2017.

IMO has been working on efforts to improve maritime safety in the polar regions for a multiple decades. In 2002, IMO first published guidelines for ships operating in ice-covered waters. The guidelines were originally just focused on the Arctic. In 2009, the guidelines were expanded to cover both the Arctic and the Antarctic. At that point, it was also agreed to pursue mandatory requirements for ships operating in polar regions.

The two parts of the Polar Code, apply as per the application of the parent conventions. Part I, follows the applicability of the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, convention—generally large international cargo ships over 500 gross tons, and passenger ships carrying more than 12 passengers on international routes. Part II follows the applicability of the annexes to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or MARPOL. The environmental provisions apply to a much broader class of vessels, as described in the applicability sections for Annexes I, II, IV and V to MARPOL.

Training and certification for crewmembers working on polar ships are described in Part I of the Code. The detailed training requirements are provided in amendments to the International Convention on Standards for Training and Certification of Watchstanders, or STCW.

The Polar Code establishes requirements for ships and mariners. The Polar Code requirements are in addition to the existing SOLAS and MARPOL convention requirements, taking into account the unique risks associated with operating in the polar regions including: ice, low temperatures, high latitude, remoteness, severe weather, limited charting and the pristine environment. While the Polar Code requirements will make ships safer and reduce their impact on the marine environment, ships are only one part of the Maritime Transportation System, or MTS. Within the MTS, additional measures are needed to improve shipping safety. These additional measures including improvements to: charting, ice and weather forecasting, communications and maritime domain awareness.

Polar Code boundary

The U.S. has a definition for the Arctic in 15 USC 4111 of the U.S. law. However, the Polar Code boundary follows its own specific definition, which is closely related to the maximum historical extent of ice coverage. The Polar Code boundary is the 60 degree latitude parallel across the Bering Sea to where it intersects with the western slope of Alaska and then continues northward. Everything above this boundary ‘line’ is considered within the applicability of the Code. Everything below, which includes the whole Aleutian Chain, is outside the applicability for the Polar Code. Locations like Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet are also outside of the applicability for the Polar Code. Ships that sail into Anchorage or Valdez may encounter ice, harsh weather and other risk factors but they are not subject to the Polar Code.

The Antarctic boundary is at 60 degrees south latitude.

Standards for ice strengthening

People who have been working in the Arctic understand that it is an incredibly diverse region; as such it’s impossible to develop a one-size-fits-all solution for ship design and construction. With this in mind, the Polar Code was developed as a goal-based code; the standards for ice strengthening and safe design differ depending on the risks associated with the activities.

With respect to ice-strengthening, ships are divided into three broad categories in terms of what types of requirements, categories A, B and C. They are categorized in terms of what ice strengthening requirements would be placed on each ship. For example, category C ships are non-ice strengthened. Category C ships are normal SOLAS ships, but under the Polar Code these ships are limited to operating in minimal ice conditions, commensurate with their design. Category B and A ships are ice-strengthened and are designed to operate in more severe ice-conditions. However, these design limitations necessitate additional planning and operating guidance for the crew. Part of the work that continues is to develop further risk-based guidance to ship masters to allow them to assess the condition in those geographic areas and plan accordingly.

Polar Operations Manual

One of the key elements of the Polar Code is the requirement for a Polar Operations Manual. The purpose of this manual is to outline: the design standards that the ship was built to, the operational assumptions that go into those design standards, and the operational limitations that will be put on the certificate. The Polar Water Operations Manual also gives operating guidance to the Master, crew and pilots on board the vessel.

Life saving and safety equipment

Given the risks associated with operation in the polar regions, the Code also includes measures to protect vital safety equipment and ensure increased ability to respond to emergencies. These include a number of detailed technical requirements for the design, testing and installation of equipment to protect against low temperatures, ice accretions and other factors associated with extreme temperatures. Further, the standards for lifesaving specify additional requirements to ensure escape routes are free of ice, navigable and ensure that there is additional equipment on board to allow sufficient time to evacuate and provide sufficient time for rescue resources to respond.

Navigation and Communication challenges in polar waters

We know that charting is limited in polar waters. The Polar Code requires additional navigation equipment so the ships can ensure that they know where the ice is and that they have additional sensors to be able to see underwater either for ice or for uncharted mounts. Additionally, as the ships travel into higher latitudes, there are additional technical requirements for communications equipment to ensure operability.

Environmental provisions

It’s important to remember that the requirements in the Polar Code are in addition to the existing MARPOL requirements. MARPOL already has special area requirements for operators in the Antarctic; the Polar Code didn’t do away with those. Rather, in some cases it built on top of the existing special area requirements; in other cases it left them unchanged. MARPOL is divided into six different annexes covering different pollution discharge streams. The work in the Polar Code expanded on Annexes I, II, IV and V.

The Polar Code includes limitations on operational discharges, such zero discharge of oil and oily mixtures, and noxious liquid substances. With regard to the discharge of sewage and garbage, for the limited cases where discharge is currently allowed, added restrictions were put in place to increase the discharge distance from ice. The environmental requirements also include additional design and construction restrictions such as added tank protection and increased resistance to damage to reduce the chance for spilling oil or noxious liquid substances

Implementation of the IMO Polar Code

Because the Polar Code is built on top of the existing IMO Conventions, the Coast Guard will be able to leverage our existing compliance and enforcement capabilities to implement the Polar Code.

If we look at what implementation looks like in the U.S. Arctic, we see the recent traffic from the last few years is predominately tug and towing vessels. Most of these are U.S. domestic vessels that fall outside of the Polar Code’s safety requirements, though depending on the specific MARPOL annex, they generally have to meet the garbage and oil discharge requirements. The vessels which will have to meet the safety provisions are the larger cargo vessels and tankers operating in Kotzebue and Nome during the ice-free summer months. So if the historical trading patterns remain through 2017, implementation of the Polar Code in the U.S. Arctic will primarily focus on implementing the environmental provisions onboard the U.S. towing vessels and enforcing the safety and environmental provisions onboard foreign cargo and tank vessels calling at U.S. ports. Although, the Coast Guard doesn’t currently have any resources permanently stationed in the region, the types of capabilities needed to implement the Code are the same as those used now to enforce the current SOLAS and MARPOL regulations.

Aside from educating our workforce, we also need to continue to work to educate the public and industry about the Polar Code and the implications for the U.S. Arctic. Along those lines, U.S. Coast Guard District Seventeen, the operational commander responsible for the Arctic, recently established an Arctic Waterways Safety Committee–a key resource for developing and disseminating information. This is really a historic accomplishment and an example of a best practice in the region, as it brings together Arctic people, maritime industry, state and federal regulators to discuss and disseminate key information about waterway usage in the region.

Casualties in the Arctic

The Coast Guard has requirements for vessels to report casualties. Depending on the severity of the casualty, the Coast Guard will take various actions ranging from data collection to on-scene investigation and enforcement.   From 2011 to 2013, there were 25 vessel casualties reported to the Coast Guard for operations north of 60 degrees latitude. If we look at the type of vessels, with the exception of one, all of the incidents occurred in June to November timeframe. This is when U.S. vessels operate in this area. If we look at the type of vessels that are impacted, they are predominantly uninspected commercial fishing vessels and uninspected towing vessels. If we look at the types of casualties, they are mechanical, equipment and material failures; only one of the casualties was the result of impact with ice. The type of casualties we are seeing and the type of vessels involved in those casualties aren’t covered by the safety provisions of the Polar Code. However, we are addressing these casualties through additional requirements for some uninspected commercial fishing vessels and through our towing vessel regulations. We have a large regulatory effort underway to inspect and certificate towing vessels; when these regulations are finalized they will likely apply irrespective of where the vessel operates and should reduce the types of casualties that have been reported from these vessels in the Arctic.

The Prevention Concept of Operations

We have an overall concept of operations for the prevention community. We set standards, enforce compliance and then investigate casualties and misconduct. At each stage within the concept of operations, we take those lessons learned and drive them back to our standards compliance activities.

With regard to the Polar Code, we’ve completed the standards and now we’re moving forward into compliance. As we start compliance, it is likely that experience gained during this phase will be fed back into the development of new guidance and policies to further enhance compliance. Initiatives like District Seventeen’s Arctic Waterways Safety Committee will prove to be a valuable resource for gathering and developing this information. Further, the work that marine insurers, the International Association of Classification Societies and the Arctic States are doing to raise awareness and develop guidance will further promote standardization. The IMO Polar Code is a framework which can be built upon and improved as we gain additional experience operating in the polar regions.

Capt. John Mauger thanks Michael Kingston, DWF LLP, for his efforts to promote maritime safety by raising awareness about the IMO Polar Code. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Capt. John Mauger thanks Michael Kingston, DWF LLP, for his efforts to promote maritime safety by raising awareness about the IMO Polar Code. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.