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Emergency Preparations for Vessel Operations - International Law Office

International Law Office

Shipping & Transport - Germany

Emergency Preparations for Vessel Operations

May 14 2008

In October 2007 the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved new guidelines for the control of ships in an emergency, applicable to its member states, ship masters, companies, salvors and others involved in maritime emergencies. The main goals of the guidelines are to:

  • identify the chains of command;
  • organize efforts to save lives and property; and
  • prevent pollution to the environment.

Furthermore, the guidelines help to clarify the role and obligations of seafarers, bearing in mind possible criminal prosecutions at a later date.

In general, the guidelines seek to implement a safety management system, confirming the ship master’s overruling authority and responsibility to take decisions with respect to safety and the prevention of pollution. It is crucial for each master to inform the appropriate coastal state authorities, as well as the flag state and the ship owner, of the nature of the emergency and the assistance required. Shipowners are advised to outline in detail the instructions applying to the master and the crew.

In Germany, criminal prosecutions for damage caused to people and goods or for marine pollution regularly address the internal regulations that shipowners should implement according to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping regulations, as well as IMO Resolution A.852(20). Such rules set out guidelines for the establishment of an integrated system of contingency planning for shipboard emergencies and require the consideration of the International Safety Management (ISM) Code for the safe operation of ships and for pollution prevention (ISM Code Resolution A.741(18)). Shipowners and masters must ensure that emergency situations are handled in accordance with the applicable rules. Otherwise, the authorities will take action, which often results in criminal prosecution.

Therefore, shipowners in Germany should develop a decision support system for emergency management for their fleet. In order to comply with IMO Resolution A.852(20), such a system should cover:

  • identification of foreseeable emergency situations and response actions;
  • assignment of a shipboard response squad and communication lines;
  • identification of reporting lines for emergencies;
  • identification of existing procedures and plans to be integrated into the emergency system;
  • preparation and distribution of emergency plans for all identified emergency situations; and
  • training of emergency response participants.

Such training should include security drills to be conducted at least once every three months and, where more than 25% of the ship’s crew has changed, within one week of that change. One of the main objectives of security drills and exercises is to ensure that shipboard personnel are proficient in all assigned security duties at all security levels, as well as the identification of any security deficiencies and the effective implementation of internal emergency procedures.

The latest IMO guidelines allow member states with relevant legislation to intervene more actively in emergency situations when the ship is in waters under their jurisdiction. The guidelines provide that a coastal state intending to use powers under its own legislation should ensure that:

  • the chain of command for the onshore organization is clear and each level of the chain has clear procedures setting out what actions it should take and the limits of its powers;
  • the master of the ship, the shipowner and any salvage team are clearly informed of:
    • the onshore command structure;
    • the degree of responsibility that remains with them; and
    • the limitations on their freedom of action;
  • the flag state is informed as early as possible in the proceedings and its advice sought; and
  • unless time pressure makes such communication impossible, the master is allowed to speak with the shipowner in accordance with the ISM Code provisions.

It is clear - and Article 221 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea confirms - that under international law the right of coastal states allows a state to take and enforce measures beyond its territorial waters in proportion to the actual or threatened damage to its coastline or actual or threatened pollution from a maritime casualty. States acting in this manner must, according to the 2007 IMO guidelines, ensure that their actions comply with the Convention on the Law of the Sea and/or the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, as well as international customary law applying through their national legislation.

Finally, the guidelines include requirements for salvors. A salvor is required to use its best endeavours to salvage the vessel and its cargo and, while engaged in such operations, to avoid or minimize damage to the environment. As a basic requirement, a salvor must be provided with detailed information about the nature of the casualty, the situation of persons on board, cargo and bunkers. Under the 2007 IMO guidelines the salvor is required to communicate and coordinate with the master and the coastal state as much as possible, and the salvor should advise the shipowner or master and the coastal state authorities as soon as possible of its salvage plan and the personnel and equipment that will be utilized to carry out the salvage operations. The coastal state exercising authority must allow the salvor access to the vessel; in turn, the salvor must ensure that the salvage plan and actions represent the best environmental option for the shipowner and the coastal state concerned.

For further information on this topic please contact Stefan Schrandt-Zimmer at Dabelstein & Passehl by telephone (+49 40 31 77 970) or by fax (+49 40 31 77 97 77) or by email (s-schrandt@da-pa.com).

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