Where’s The Fire?: Coast Guard Issues Litany Of Proposed Regulations Regarding Fire Protection Systems

In a 106-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued Monday, January 13, 2014, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has undertaken a wide-ranging overhaul of the standards for fire protection, detection and extinguishment equipment aboard inspected and uninspected vessels, mobile offshore drilling units (MODUs), deepwater ports, and Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) facilities. This comprehensive and expansive overhaul is intended to “harmonize [USCG] regulations with appropriate national and international consensus standards; address advances in fire protection technologies and standards; update [USCG] approval processes for fire detection and alarm systems; and revise [USCG] regulations for other types of equipment or components.” 79 Fed. Reg. 2254, 2254 (Jan. 13, 2014). The proposed regulations span several chapters and subparts of two different C.F.R. titles – namely Title 46 (covering the USCG’s more historic shipping purview with respect to vessels) and Title 33 (covering the USCG’s hybrid/share authority over certain units/facilities/vessels engaged in operations on the OCS).

The following is a very brief, bird’s eye view indicative of the types of changes recommended in the NPR:

  • Allowing operators of U.S.-flag vessels more flexibility to choose their preferred compliance regime from among (i) the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS) standards; (ii) the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Fire Safety Systems (FSS) Code; (iii) or updated USCG regulations for the design and installation of fire detection and alarm systems. 79 Fed. Reg. at 2256.
  • Consolidation/updating of USCG regulations regarding fire alarm and detections systems for various types of vessels governed by C.F.R. Title 46 (including passenger vessels, uninspected vessels, and certain MODUs), with a 2 1/2 year “grandfathering” compliance period during which vessels with pre-existing systems will not be required to retrofit (unless replacing such systems).
  • Various provisions to allow more cooperation between the USCG and from the fire detection/prevention/extinguishment industry in order to ensure the most up-to-date, efficient and cost-effective implementation of new safety technology in regulated vessels.
  • Codification of an alternative path to USCG approval through a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) to which the U.S. is a party, authorizing approvals of certain fire protection equipment issued by another nation that is party to the MRA, thus reducing manufacturer costs and burdens associated with duplicative testing and evaluation for multiple national approvals.

That said, as the expanse of the 106-page NPR suggests, the level of detail in these new regulations is deep and will require review on a vessel-by-vessel, facility-by-facility basis to determine whether and to what extent the proposed regulations will apply.

Also, to continue a theme that has been well-developed in this blog and across the industry in general, these new USCG regulations once again raise the issue of potential overlapping/redundant regulatory jurisdiction between the USCG and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Specifically, BSEE regulations include provisions adopting American Petroleum Institute (API) Recommended Practices for Fire Prevention and Control on Fixed Open-Type Production Platforms, as well as other API fire protection/response standards. See 33 C.F.R. 250.198; 250.859; 250.862. Thus, once again, it remains unclear whether and to what extent both the proposed USCG regulations and the existing BSEE regulations may apply to certain OCS units/facilities.

The comment period for the proposed USCG fire protection/detection/response regulations runs through April 14, 2014.