Traveling inspectors: 100 years of expertise

July 16 marked the 100th anniversary of the traveling inspection staff, originally created under the Steamboat Inspection Service. These travelers are highly experienced marine inspectors and investigators that help to measure the effectiveness of existing programs and policies.

Detached Traveling Inspector Stephen Petersen examines the riveted hull structure of the 1877 Barque Elissa in Galveston, TX. Photo Courtesy of Marc Cruder.

Detached Traveling Inspector Stephen Petersen examines the riveted hull structure of the 1877 Barque Elissa in Galveston, Texas. Photo Courtesy of Marc Cruder.

“It is only natural that the agency responsible for rescue activities should be concerned with the prevention of marine casualties,” said Vice Adm. Russell Waeshe.

Waeshe’s statement to Congress in 1944 highlighted the need for a Coast Guard prevention program, which includes the missions of maritime safety, security and stewardship.

However, the establishment of a unified prevention program took more than 100 years to create.

In 1823, 14 percent of all steam vessels in the U.S. were destroyed by explosions, resulting in more than 1,000 casualties.

In response to the high number of casualties, Congress passed the Act of 1838 to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam”. Local inspectors were appointed by district judges to carry out this act, which mandated licensing of vessel masters and annual inspections of equipment onboard.

The Coast Guard symbol was developed for use by marine inspectors to stamp boilers and other areas cthat passed inspection. U.S. Coast Guard image.

The Coast Guard symbol was developed for use by marine inspectors to stamp boilers and other areas cthat passed inspection. U.S. Coast Guard image.

However, the casualties continued and there was a need to further the implementation of vessel inspections. The Steamboat Act of 1852 did just that. It divided the region into nine districts, each with a supervisory inspector appointed by the President. These supervisory inspectors promulgated rules and regulations for the inspection of merchant vessels and licensing requirements.

While this proved more effective than previous laws, there was still a need for oversight of the nine supervisory inspectors. With no person designated as overall responsible, the nine regions regularly operated differently which led to various applications of the regulations.

In 1871, the position of Supervising Inspector General for the Steamboat Inspection Service was established. With this new leadership, death tolls on the waterways from marine casualties dropped from 700 to just 241.

To ensure consistency, a traveling inspector position was established in 1914. This inspector travelled throughout the country to inspect vessels and examine licensing. He reported any deficiencies directly to the Supervising Inspector General and had authority to check the work of local inspectors and ensure deficiencies were corrected in a timely manner. The Supervising Inspector General characterized this role as “a most important means of obtaining uniform administration and improving work of the service.”

The need for traveling inspectors grew as well as the scope of responsibility. In 1918 Congress authorized the appointment of up to four traveling inspectors. When marine safety responsibilities were moved to the new Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation in 1936, the number of traveling inspectors was again increased to ten.

Coast Guard Headquarters Traveling Inspector Marc Cruder emerging from the fire-tube propulsion boiler of the 1907 Steam Tug Hercules in San Francisco, Calif. Photo Courtesy of Mar Cruder.

Coast Guard Headquarters Traveling Inspector Marc Cruder emerges from the fire-tube propulsion boiler of the 1907 Steam Tug Hercules in San Francisco, Calif. Photo Courtesy of Marc Cruder.

In addition to marine inspection duties, traveling inspectors were appointed to observe conditions onboard ships at sea; assure the vessel was properly operated; the crew well trained and disciplined; passengers were instructed in regard to lifeboat, fire and abandon ship procedures; and see that working conditions, food and those numerous things that impact morale of the crew were properly controlled.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed a temporary order to move the Bureau of Marine Investigation and Navigation under the Coast Guard – a move that was made permanent four years later, coincidentally on July 16.

Since 1946, the role and scope of the Coast Guard traveling inspectors has stayed relatively the same. They are an on-call, technical resource that assist the Coast Guard’s operational commanders with vessels that are deemed unique, high risk or of special interest and help measure the effectiveness of current programs and policies

In a recent seminar to honor the past 100 years, Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, the assistant commandant for prevention policy, addressed the important role the travelers have played to support the Coast Guard’s prevention mission.

“The traveling inspection staff has provided valuable leadership and expertise over the years and I see them remaining a key asset to the prevention mission,” he said.

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