AMSEA Drill Conductor Course: A Way to Save Lives at Sea

By Margaret Bauman

July 2011

The arrival of spring didn’t make the waters of Bristol Bay appreciably warmer for these fishermen honing their survival skills during a drill conductor course presented by AMSEA. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

For the veteran commercial fish harvesters lined up on the dock in their survival suits, jumping into the icy waters of Bristol Bay was just another step in honing their skills to deal with emergencies at sea.

The group of Bristol Bay fishermen was taking part in a fishing vessel drill conductor course offered by the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

In return for their time and effort on a couple of windy, rainy days at Dillingham, they got a course of instruction from instructor Ron Bowers on everything they need to know to deal with and lead their crew in incidents ranging from fires on board to maydays, handling life rafts, immersion suits and personal flotation devices, and flares, plus cold water survival skills and distress radio beacons, also known as EPIRBS.

To Beatrice Grewal, a vessel captain and the only woman in the class, earning her drill conductor certification was something special.

“It means that if there is any type of fire, I have to jump overboard or anything, I know I am capable to throw those orders or tell my crew to follow them,” said Grewal, as she peeled off her survival suit after the life raft drill.

Other participants in the class included Fritz Johnson, Anders Johnson, Max Martin, Wyatt Philbrook, Chad Felts and Jerry Liboff, all of Dillingham; Harvey Demandle of Akiak, Joshua Page and Dan Martello of Seattle and Robert Lebovic of Ashville, North Carolina.

Bowers, an Emergency Technician 3 from Dillingham, has been teaching the course all over Alaska for years, and has trained several hundred commercial fishermen. The classes are free to commercial fishermen, thanks to funding from AMSEA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., and other sources.

Bowers also teaches first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation courses and donates his time annually to teach a marine safety course at the alternative high school in Dillingham, the Maximum Achievement Program.

While the regulations for the commercial fishing safety laws passed by Congress in October of 2010 are still being written, AMSEA is advising fishermen to be prepared for when they do go into effect by getting dockside exams as soon as possible and getting safety training now.

AMSEA’s executive director, Jerry Dzugan, wrote about this in the spring 2011 edition of the AMSEA newsletter, which is online at

“Only about 15 percent of the fleet currently takes advantage of the free, voluntary exams that are valid for up to two years,” he writes. “One hundred percent of the fleet will be required to get these exams, which will then be called a certificate of compliance, sometime after October 2012.

“This may result in a manpower shortage among examiners. Getting an exam decal now avoids the possible delays resulting from waiting until the last minute. Also, there may be a fee for exams after October 2012,” he wrote. “However, there is no confirmation of this. Get them while they are free and readily available.”

Dzugan also urged commercial fishermen not to delay safety training.

“Some of the new required training will involve additional subject matter,” he said. “The training requirements will take longer to enact and enforce since they will probably be subject to a rulemaking and public comment period. There will also need to be a phase-in period (perhaps three to five years) for fishermen to get training. There will also likely be some acceptable substitutes for training in some subject areas like seamanship or navigation if one has sea time and/or a USCG license.

Dzugan said subjects like drill conducting, stability and survival may not have a sea time or license equivalency. “However, this has not yet been determined,” he wrote. “It is highly likely that training received in currently available stability and drill conductor courses will be good for five years from date of training. This USCG-accepted training is available now from AMSEA, North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association and others.”

AMSEA’s goals for the new training requirement are to ensure that training is meaningful and relevant to fishermen and hands-on; to ensure that it is accessible to fishermen, delivered in homeports whenever possible, and that the training is affordable.

Another date clear in the new regulations is Jan. 1, 2015. On that date vessels fishing outside of three miles must have survival craft with out-of-water flotation. This means that a lifefloat or Buoyant Apparatus such as a Kaino Rescue Ring or that piece of orange coated foam will no longer meet requirements.

The lowest level survival craft that will keep people out of water is an Inflatable Buoyant Apparatus, he noted. “Fishermen should consider whether the cost of an $800 BA that will only meet requirements until Jan. 1, 2015 is as cost effective as buying an IBA,” he said. “A hard-pack four-man IBA now costs about $2,000 a six-man about $2,200; repack valises are $300 less.”

Dzugan said that AMSEA will gear up and use its port-based training network in Alaska and elsewhere in the US to help meet increased training demand.

At the same time, he warned, funding to deliver this training is uncertain due to federal budget cuts. Course fees may be needed in the future, he said.

AMSEA memberships by individuals and organizations allow the organization to stretch its funding and also to secure other funding.

Learn more at or call 907-747-3287.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at