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The act of Congress approved July 7, 1838, which provided for lifeboats, signal lights, fire pumps and hose, and the inspection of the hulls and boilers of steam vessels, was the first legislation on the important question of "the better security of lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.'' This act was modified by the acts of March 3, 1843, and March 3, 1849, the latter of which provided for signal lights on all vessels.
The act of Congress approved August 30, 1852, known as the steamboat act, however, was really the establishment of the present Steamboat-Inspection Service, and since that date the work has been prosecuted, with but few innovations, on the plans then adopted. Prior to July 1, 1903, the Secretary of the Treasury was charged with the general supervision of the Service, but on that date this supervision was transferred to the head of what is now the Department of Commerce by act of Congress approved February 14, 1903 (the organic act of the Department).
At the present time the Steamboat-Inspection Service is charged with the duty of inspecting the hulls and machinery of steam vessels and with the administration of the laws requiring passenger vessels to be equipped with boats, rafts, water-tight bulkheads, signal lights, life-saving appliances, and fire-fighting apparatus. It is charged also with the duty of determining the number of passengers a vessel can carry with safety, the number of officers necessary for the safe navigation of vessels, and the licensing of such officers. It prescribes pilot rules to be observed by vessels navigating the waters of the United States, and conducts investigations and trials for violations of the steamboat-inspection laws and the rules and regulations issued in furtherance thereof.
For the purpose of administering the pilot rules the waters of the United States are divided into three parts, and separate rules are made for each, These three divisions are (1) Atlantic and Pacific coast inland waters, (2) the Great Lakes and their connecting and tributary waters as far east as Montreal, and (3) rivers whose waters flow into the Gulf of Mexico, and their tributaries, and the Red River of the North.
The jurisdiction of the Service extends to all steam vessels navigating any waters of the United States which are common highways of commerce or open to general or competitive navigation, except vessels owned by the United States or other governments and boats propelled in whole or in part by steam for navigating canals. It has jurisdiction also over coastwise seagoing vessels and vessels navigating the Great Lakes, when navigating within the jurisdiction of the United States, as well as over all foreign private steam vessels carrying passengers from any port of the United States to any other place and country.
At the head of the Service is the Supervising Inspector General, with offices located in Washington, whose duty it is, under the direction of the Secretary of Commerce, to superintend the administration of the steamboat-inspection laws; preside at the meetings of the Board of Supervising Inspectors; receive all reports and accounts of inspectors; examine, on application of the officer whose license is in question, any case involving the revocation or suspension of license; report fully at stated periods to the Secretary of Commerce on all matters pertaining to his official duties, and produce a correct and uniform administration of the inspection laws, rules, and regulations. The Supervising Inspector General is responsible for the general effectiveness, usefulness, and capacity of the Service, and for the intelligent direction and management of its affairs.
The United States and all its territorial possessions, with the exception of the Philippine Islands, is divided into 10 supervising inspection districts, each of which is presided over by a supervising inspector of steam vessels, and these districts, in turn, are divided into local districts in charge of boards of local inspectors, consisting of a local inspector of hulls and a local inspector of boilers. Wherever necessary, assistant inspectors of hulls and boilers are appointed to assist the local inspectors in the inspection of vessels. There is also one traveling inspector. To each board at least one clerk is assigned to perform necessary clerical work.
The supervising inspectors, in charge of the various supervising inspection districts, are selected for their knowledge and practical experience in the uses of steam for navigation and are responsible for the general condition and efficiency of the Service throughout their respective districts. It is their duty to watch over all parts of the territory assigned to them; instruct local boards of inspectors in the proper performance of their duties; examine, whenever they think it expedient, into the condition of any licensed vessel for the purpose of ascertaining whether the laws have been observed both by the inspectors and the masters and owners; and report to the Secretary any failure of a board to do its duty. They are also obliged to visit any district in which there is at any time no board of inspectors and within which steam vessels are owned and employed, and to perform in such district all the duties imposed on local boards. They hear and decide all cases in which any person, master, or owner deems himself wronged by the decision of the local inspectors, and investigate and decide all cases, when requested to do so, where disagreements have arisen between the local inspectors. At the end of each year they submit reports to the Supervising Inspector General covering the general business transacted during the year, together with all violations of laws and the action taken in relation thereto.
On the third Wednesday of January, in each year, and at such other times as the Secretary of Commerce may prescribe, the supervising inspectors and the Supervising Inspector General assemble at Washington as a Board of Supervising Inspectors for the purpose of joint consultation, the assignment of territory, the approval of instruments and equipment required to be used on steam vessel for the better security of life, and the formulation of regulations necessary to carry out in the most effective manner the provisions of the steamboat-inspection laws, which regulations, when approved by the Secretary of Commerce, have the force of law. The Secretary, however, is authorized to call in session, at any time, after reasonable public notice, a meeting of an executive committee, composed of the Supervising Inspector General and two supervising inspectors, which committee, with the approval of the Secretary, may change or repeal any of the rules or regulations made by the Board of Supervising Inspectors, such changes to have the force of law and continue in effect until 30 days after the adjournment of the next meeting of the Board of Supervising Inspectors. The executive committee may also approve instruments, machines, and equipment required to be used on steam vessels for the better security of life.
Each of the local districts into which the various supervising inspection districts are divided is presided over by a board of local inspectors, consisting of a local inspector of hulls and a local inspector of boilers. It is the duty of this board to inspect, at least once a year, each steam vessel within its district, and to certificate or disapprove the same, and to examine all steamers arriving and departing to and from the ports in its district, and order the master or owner to make necessary repairs or correct unlawful conditions. It is also incumbent on the board to examine all persons applying for officers' licenses, to license for five years each of them who can be safely intrusted with the, duties and responsibilities of the station for which application is made, to investigate all acts of incompetency or misconduct committed by licensed, officers while acting under the authority of their licenses, and when necessary to suspend or revoke the licenses of such officers. It is required to keep a record of all licenses granted to masters, mates, pilots, and engineers, as well as its decisions in cases where licenses have been refused, suspended or revoked, and to transmit to the supervising inspector of its district all testimony received by it in such proceedings. it is also required to keep a record of certificates issued to vessels and of every steamer boarded during the year, which information together with an account of all other official acts, is communicated to the supervising inspector in the form of a report at such times as may be directed.
Assistant inspectors perform such duties of actual inspection as may be assigned to them under the direction, supervision, and control of the local inspectors, and may be detailed by the Supervising Inspector General, under the direction of the Secretary of Commerce, to inspect, at the mills where the same are manufactured, iron and steel plates to be used in the construction of marine boilers, which plates, when properly stamped, are accepted by local inspectors as being in full compliance with the law.
Whenever any local inspector or supervising inspector ascertains that any vessel subject to the provisions of the steamboat-inspection laws is being operated. or navigated without complying with the provisions of such laws, the certificate of inspection issued to such vessel is immediately revoked, and no new certificate is issued until the law has been fully complied with. Any vessel operating or navigating, or attempting to operate or navigate, after the revocation of her certificate of inspection and before the issuance of a new certificate is subject to a fine, and may by proper order or action of any district court of the United States having jurisdiction be seized summarily by way of libel and held without privilege of release by bail or bond until a proper certificate of inspection shall have been issued to said vessel. Any master or owner of any vessel whose certificate shall have been revoked may, however, appeal to the Secretary of Commerce for a reexamination of the case, and upon such appeal the Secretary has power to revise or set aside the action of the local or supervising inspector and to direct the issuance of a certificate of inspection. The judicial process brought against the vessel shall thereupon be of no further force or effect, and the vessel shall be released.
The duties of the traveling inspector, performed under the direction of the Supervising Inspector General, are to travel from place to place and make special examinations of vessels subject to inspection, for the purpose of keeping the Supervising Inspector General informed as to the actual conditions in the districts as he observed them, with a view to obtaining uniform administration of the law, and the standardizing of equipment and of licensing of officers.
In addition to the annual report of the Supervising Inspector General and the list of officers licensed each year, the Service issues and distributes frequent editions of pilot rules for each of the three divisions into which the waters of the United States are divided, laws governing the Service, and general rules and regulations prescribed by the Board of Supervising Inspectors.