Vessel owners exempt from TWIC reader requirements

Inland and passenger vessel operators are breathing a sigh of relief that the proposed federal rule for TWIC reader requirements excludes most of their vessels.

Published on March 22, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the readers excludes most U.S. passenger vessels and towboats from having to acquire, install or use electronic readers to verify the identity of TWIC holders. 

In the proposed rule, the reader requirement would be limited to vessels and port facilities that handle certain dangerous cargo in bulk, ships certified to carry more than 1,000 passengers and facilities that receive them, vessels that tow covered ships, and fleeting facilities that receive barges carrying CDC in bulk. The NPRM notes that the proposed rule would apply to less than 1 percent of vessels and about 16 percent of facilities that fall under U.S. Coast Guard security regulations, but the rule could be expanded in the future as security risks are reevaluated.

Readers are the second phase of a costly security program mandated by Congress after 9/11 to control access to secure areas of maritime facilities and vessels. Since 2007, thousands of mariners have been issued biometric TWICs, but the security value of the program has been limited because the rule for readers has taken so long. The TWIC cards show the holder’s photograph, name, card expiration date and number, and contains embedded templates of the person’s fingerprints and other security features that can only be activated when scanned by an electronic reader.

The long-awaited NPRM uses a risk-based approach to implement the reader requirements, targeting vessels and facilities that are the most susceptible to a terrorist attack. The framework classifies vessels and facilities into three risk groups and proposes that only those in the highest risk group meet the requirement. Vessels and facilities in the other two groups would either continue to visually inspect TWICs or voluntarily use electronic readers. 

The Passenger Vessel Association is relieved that the NPRM applies only to vessels carrying more than 1,000 passengers and those with crews of 14 or more TWIC holders.

“PVA commends the Coast Guard for acknowledging that virtually all U.S.-flagged passenger vessels are appropriately secure and that an expensive TWIC reader would not add to their security,” said PVA President Carolyn Horgan. “We are generally pleased with the direction of this proposed rule.”

The towing industry is also happy that the NPRM treads lightly on inland operators. Vessels with 14 or fewer crewmembers are exempt from having to install readers, which would exclude the majority of inland towboats if the exemption sticks. 

An earlier version of the rule had included this exemption on the basis that crewmembers know each other on smaller vessels, but proposed a cumbersome process requiring towing vessel operations to periodically interface with readers to check the ongoing validity of each crewmember’s TWIC. 

“We’re very pleased that the Coast Guard has proposed a much simpler process that places less burden on operators without undermining vessel security,” said Brian Vahey of the American Waterways Operators.

The public comment period on the NPRM ends May 21, although several congressmen are trying to extend it until Aug. 21 to give the maritime industry more time to respond. The Coast Guard has scheduled public hearings and will consider the feedback in formulating the final rule. This process could take most of 2013.

Affected vessel operators and facilities would have two years from publication of the final rule to comply. 

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