By Susan Urbas, Vice President, CHSC
I know that the Illinois Paddling Council counts among its membership many paddlers, who, like me as a rower, have several decades of experience plying the Chicago area waterways, particularly the River, under their belts. We know the stark difference between then and now; between the long, slow, steady growth of human-powered and other traffic, and the explosion of all varieties of traffic which has occurred in the last decade. While on the one hand we are heartened to observe the tremendous growth in human-powered craft usage, on the other hand we, and other types of users, are gravely concerned about the safety implications inherent in waterways crowded by a rich diversity of vessels and users operating at widely divergent levels of operational knowledge, skill, and safety practices.
Increasing concerns over safety risks on Chicago area waterways led to a Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment (PAWSA) being conducted by the Coast Guard on March 27-28, 2012. The purpose of the PAWSA was to identify major safety hazards, estimate risk levels, evaluate potential mitigation measures, and set the stage for implementation of selected measures to further reduce risks in the Port of Chicago. PAWSA participants included representatives from marine stakeholder organizations and government agencies at the federal, state and local levels, including law enforcement.
By conclusion of the PAWSA process, it was clear to the participants that a new harbor safety committee structure was needed that would effectively bring together the diverse variety of Chicago waterway users who have mutual interests in the use of navigable waterways, with the agencies which oversee the waterways. The challenge in drafting a charter for this new harbor safety committee was building a structure that at every level ensured the appropriate marine interests would be represented and the appropriate expertise applied to solve problems and educate the public.
(Remember that last sentence as you read on, for the application, as appropriate to the issue at hand, of all of the relevant marine interests and their expertise to solve problems and educate the public is at the very heart of the CHSC. If your voice, expressing its concerns and knowledge are not in the CHSC room, then you, and the marine community collectively, may just as well hand it over to other interests or unenlightened third parties to make decisions about our waterways’ usage).
The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee (CHSC) was formed on July 15, 2013. The CHSC Charter, which required approval of the Coast Guard, was the result of a year-long effort to devise a harbor safety committee for Chicago which suited the nature of this marine community and its waterway challenges. The approved charter emerged from historical elements in the Chicago marine community (its less formal predecessor harbor safety committee, the 12-year old Port Development and Safety Council), best practices gleaned from other harbor safety committees around the country, and many rounds of input from marine stakeholder and government agency representatives.
Despite the heavy workload to get the new organization up and running, the CHSC did not hesitate to take immediate action to improve the traffic safety on the Chicago River. Faced with a rapid increase in the number of “close calls” between commercial and industrial vessels (tour boats and barges) and rental boats (kayaks and electric boats) during the 2013 boating season, the CHSC sprang into action less than a month after its inaugural meeting on July 15th, and proposed a traffic and hazard warning signage plan which received Coast Guard approval. The signage that you now see posted along the Chicago River alerting to hazards, directional instructions, and no wake zones was the result of this collaboration between the CHSC, the City, and the Coast Guard.
Other accomplishments of the CHSC since its formation in 2013 include successful collaboration with the City on Chicago Riverwalk project construction activity; dissemination of numerous safety relevant alerts, documents, and publications; coordination and collaboration on filming and special events projects on the River and Lake; operational modification of the Centennial Fountain; development and presentation of a Chicago waterway-specific safety education presentation; and perhaps most importantly, CHSC’s very detailed and recently released Safety Recommendations and Guide to Rules and Regulations. New projects now underway include development of a web portal for user-relevant safety training and certification.
For more information about the CHSC and how to join as an individual member or marine stakeholder organization member, please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pardon our mess while we complete work on our website, www.chicagoharborsafety.com. A couple of weeks from now, that will be the place to go for everything CHSC and Chicago area waterways related.