Free Article: Mobile phone use in pilotage waters

22 Feb 2023 Institute News

Pilotage services must use effective policies and procedures to manage phone use on the bridge

John Clarke FNI

On March 13 2022 the 334m container ship Ever Forward grounded under pilotage in Chesapeake Bay and remained in that position for over a month before being refloated. The US Coast Guard investigation report concluded that the primary cause of the accident was the pilot’s ‘failure to maintain situational awareness and attention while navigating’. Between leaving the berth and immediately before grounding, the pilot spent much of the transit making personal telephone calls, sending and reading text messages, drafting an email and replaying a previous pilotage on his Portable Pilot Unit (PPU) computer to capture a particular screenshot he needed. [Editor’s note: see MARS, p19, for link to the accident report and further analysis.]

Responding to the incident, the Maryland Board of Pilots suspended the pilot’s licence indefinitely. On 6 January 2023, it enacted a rule to ban the use of personal mobile phones by pilots.

Mariner reaction

It is not clear from reading the various news reports whether the phone ban applies to all phones or if it is limited solely to personal phones. The reports led to discussion on The Nautical Institute (Technical Group) at Linkedin, where some commenters expressed their opinion that pilots should not use phones for any purpose at all during pilotage. Others felt the ban was a knee-jerk response that could reduce safety in pilotage waters.

This accident was not the first time a ship has grounded due to the pilot or officer conning the ship being distracted by phone use (for some examples, see investigation reports Priscilla 2018, Crimson Mars 2006, Bunga Teratai Satu 2000).

This accident was not the first time a ship has grounded due to the pilot or officer conning the ship being distracted by phone use (for some examples, see investigation reports Priscilla 2018, Crimson Mars 2006, Bunga Teratai Satu 2000).

The hazard of distraction

A pilot’s highest priorities are to control the movement of the ship and to maintain situational awareness – everything else must be secondary. However, because we are human, we sometimes work against our best interests: we are good at paying attention when our workload is high and we are mentally engaged, but during periods of low workload/low engagement we tend to become bored and inattentive. Statistics show that most accidents in the shipping industry occur during these periods of low workload/low engagement. A pilot following a straight section of a channel or fairway with no pressing threats at hand would not be human if they did not sometimes feel the temptation to fill out some paperwork or reach for their phone and read an email. Some might even rationalise it to themselves as productive use of ‘idle’ time. This is a hazardous belief; Jens Rasmussen’s ‘drift towards failure’ model concisely illustrates the effect on safety margins of our desire to take shortcuts and minimise our workload. As we seek to make life easier for ourselves and cut corners, every decision narrows the margin between what we think is acceptable performance and the point where accidents will occur.

Distractions and interruptions are a leading cause of lost situational awareness – we know this from our Bridge Resource Management (BRM) training. Endsley’s model of situational awareness informs us that perception of what is happening around us (Level 1 situational awareness) is the most basic, primary level of situational awareness. If a pilot has their head down reading an email and is not actively monitoring their environment, they have little chance of maintaining that Level 1 situational awareness.

Pilots must remain conscious of the hazards of distraction, especially during periods where the workload is relatively low.

Do mobile phones present a unique distraction?

It could be said that phone bans are unnecessary because pilotage services should already have policies or procedures in place that emphasise the importance of giving full attention to the pilotage. Additionally it could be argued that a mobile phone is no more distracting to a pilot than is daydreaming or becoming engrossed in conversation with the master. There is, however, ample evidence to support the proposition that mobile phones are a particularly powerful distraction. We are more plugged in and connected than ever before, and that connectedness increases daily. Smart phones and their apps are specifically designed to gain and hold our attention. Even when we consciously try to ignore them, our devices continue to nag us with alerts for incoming or missed calls, emails, messages, updates and social media posts.

The devices aren’t entirely to blame – there are also human factor considerations. There are many peer-reviewed research papers that show the growing prevalence of mobile phone addiction in society (available online, of course). As the capability of smart phones increases, our willingness to give them our attention increases with it. For a growing number of us, our phone is a constant companion and many people become anxious when separated from their phone for even a short period. Mobile phones and devices actively compete for our attention, and we gladly give in to them.

It is clear that mobile phones present a significant and growing opportunity for distracting us from our primary tasks on the bridge. And we seem to be predisposed to paying attention to these devices.

Mobile phones as a business tool

When pilots board a ship they join the bridge team, but they also retain a leading role in the port team. In addition to conning the ship they often need to communicate with other people outside the ship such as VTS operators, towage, support craft, lock/bridge operators, line handlers, terminal staff and other pilots/masters holding a Pilot Exemption Certificate (PEC). This is done by phone or radio. VHF offers an advantage over a phone call: both sides of the conversation are broadcast, which means the bridge team and any other harbour users get to hear exactly what the pilot hears. However, not every conversation needs to be heard by everyone on the harbour. As an example pilots often need to talk with towage providers to solve problems or minimise delays. Using the phone for what can be complex conversations keeps radio channels free for essential traffic. In busy ports, high levels of superfluous VHF use can be a great distraction or even lead to volume controls being turned down on some ships, at the risk of missing relevant information.

Beyond their use for voice calls, smart phones have become a key source of information for pilots. Most of the organisations making up the port team structure their information systems around modern telecommunications – which means dedicated apps, automated SMS alerts, web forms, web portals, remote cameras, and constant connectivity, providing real-time data and high quality predictions of current/tide, wind, swell and dynamic underkeel clearance (UKC) at critical points of the voyage. Pilots often have access to apps showing allocated tugs, locks, berths, and expected traffic schedules. The providers of these information services expect mobile workers to access these systems on smart phones as they move about the port.

Pilots need this information to do their job safely and efficiently. A pilotage service that prohibited pilots from using a smart phone for operational purposes would need to replace the phone with some other device providing the same connectivity. Some might ask why the pilot couldn’t simply use the PPU device to view or interact with these systems. It could be done that way, but it would require the pilot to tab away from the live PPU window for the time they are interacting with the other system. This would impact on the pilot’s situational awareness.

A smart phone (or a company-supplied device with the same functionality) is an essential tool for most pilots in this day and age.

Aviation and the Sterile Cockpit

Since 1981, aviators have been required to follow the Sterile Cockpit Rule. Below 10,000 feet and during critical phases of the flight no conversation or activity that is not essential to the safe operation of the aircraft is permitted. The intention of this rule is to minimise distractions and reduce errors. The concept is not directly transferable to a marine setting but it could be adapted to our situation.

At most airlines today, iPads and other tablets have replaced the pilot’s bag of manuals, charts and flight documents. The transition to the ‘electronic flight bag’ began in the US, and is now widespread. Aviators use their iPads to check weather forecasts and live weather conditions, they store the latest airport charts and procedures, and use dedicated flight planning and logging apps. Large passenger aircraft also have satellite phones available on the flight deck to make calls to airlines and airports for such routine purposes as ordering galley stores, and to obtain assistance during incidents. Phone usage is not permitted during sterile cockpit conditions unless required for the safety of the flight.

The aviation industry appears to have managed the risk of distraction by means of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and the Sterile Cockpit Rule.

Learning from Ever Forward

If the maritime industry is to gain anything useful from the Ever Forward grounding, we need to do better than impose blanket bans on phone use in pilotage waters. As Captain John Pace said in the Ever Forward Linkedin discussion: ‘Prescriptive controls for a behavioural problem rarely work!’

We know that mobile phones are an appropriate tool for managing safety and efficiency in pilotage. But we also know how distracting they can be.

We need to address the distraction risk, rather than banning the device. Education has a role to play here. BRM course facilitators should emphasise how distraction and interruption can affect human performance. BRM course materials and lectures should specifically discuss the Ever Forward grounding and explain the unique distraction hazards of mobile phones.

Pilotage services should develop and implement practicable policies and procedures that rule out or restrict the use of devices for personal purposes whenever a pilot is acting as part of the bridge team. These policies and procedures should explicitly state the pilot’s priorities when in control of the ship and the conditions under which a pilot may use a smart phone for operational purposes in a similar manner to the aviation sterile cockpit concept.

Ship managers and officers of the watch should take into account the legitimate utility of mobile phones in pilotage operations when writing their own policies and procedures and when navigating in pilotage waters. A captain or OOW must always be empowered to challenge a pilot who appears to be engaging in at risk behaviour with devices or phones. If it isn’t essential for the safe pilotage of the ship or if it appears to be a distraction, the Master or OOW should remember their BRM training and never hesitate to probe, challenge or intervene.

Ultimately pilots must take personal responsibility for their performance in this as in all pilotage matters. They have a duty of care to deliver a diligent and professional standard of pilotage. They must ensure their devices are used for essential purposes only and to remain alert to the threats of inattention and distraction when piloting.

Useful links

Nautical Institute Technical Group Linkedin discussion

Sterile cockpit rule
How Sterile Cockpits Can Save Your Life - EMS Flight Safety Network

Rasmussen’s Drift towards Failure Model