A long-awaited computerized data bank on oil tankers available for charter is up and running amid optimistic predictions it will help prevent oil spills at sea and at transfer terminals.

"I'm very much in favor of the principle of what they're doing," said Bill Gray, president of Skaarup Oil Corp. in Greenwich, Conn., of the new Ship Inspection Report (SIRE) program.The SIRE program, which is operated by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum in London, collects tanker inspection reports by oil companies and other members of the forum. These reports on the technical condition and operation of tankers are placed in a computerized database that can be accessed around the clock from anywhere in the world.

The theory behind the program is that tanker owners who offer their vessels for charter will maintain and operate them better if they know the inspection reports performed by a single oil company will be shared with other companies. The information also will be shared with oil terminal operators, port and canal authorities and the appropriate government agencies.

Art McKenzie, whose Tanker Advisory Center in New York collects and publishes information on tankers and tanker accidents, estimates that about 2,300 to 2,500 of the approximately 3,500 tankers in the worldwide charter market potentially could be inspected under the SIRE program.

E.J.M. Ball, OCIMF director, said Tuesday in a telephone interview from London, that SIRE has collected a handful of inspection reports since the data bank was opened on Nov. 18, although many more reports are anticipated as vessel inspections are completed.

"The reports are coming in slowly, but they will build up; remember, it's a voluntary program," Mr. Ball said.

Although most major oil companies for years have been inspecting tankers before they charter the vessels, their reports were considered proprietary. This led to redundant inspections that wasted the time of vessel operators and was an added layer of expense involved in chartering a tanker.

Under SIRE, when a company such as Exxon Shipping Corp. inspects a tanker, it submits its report to the OCIMF in London, which adds the report to the data bank. When another company such as Chevron wants to charter the tanker, it can access the SIRE database and learn about its condition without having to do its own inspection.

"What we're trying to achieve at Chevron is to ensure that we do business with ship operators that operate their vessels as prudently as possible," said John Stafsnes, manager of voyage chartering and clearance at Chevron Shipping Co. in San Francisco.

Although industry observers applaud SIRE's intended goals of enhancing vessel safety and avoiding redundant inspections, they believe the program is incomplete because the reports are available only to OCIMF members. This means marine insurers, vessel classification societies and the public at large cannot access the data bank.

"I think that's a shame," said Mr. Gray of Skaarup Oil. Although participants in SIRE may express concern about the legal ramifications of their reports being shared by nonmembers, there are groups such as marine insurers and protection and indemnity clubs that have a legitimate interest in the vessel inspection reports, he said.

Another concern is the thoroughness of the reports. The inspectors do not grade a vessel, and many answers are limited to "yes" or "no." Questions may involve whether the deck or engine room of a tanker is clean, or whether the master of the vessel can communicate effectively with the crew in English. But no opinion is expressed as to how these conditions affect the operation of the vessel.

"They're not permitted to give ratings or opinions," said Mr. McKenzie of the Tanker Advisory Center. "I think the initial information will probably not be very helpful except to the companies making the inspection."

For that reason, Mr. McKenzie and others look at the SIRE program as a ''good beginning" rather than an answer to tanker safety. Mr. Gray said the SIRE program could affect tanker safety if used in conjunction with the recently introduced enhanced inspection programs of the vessel classification societies and cleared through a worldwide safety group such as the International Maritime Organization.

"Then there will truly be moral, if not legal pressure on the owners and operators of ships," Mr. Gray said.

Vessel classification societies such as the American Bureau of Shipping in New York have a similar opinion. ABS spokesman Tom Tucker said the enhanced inspection program adopted last year by the International Association of Classification Societies, which calls for more frequent and intensive surveys, will go a long way toward ensuring the seaworthiness of older vessels.

When combined with the oil company inspections under SIRE, they should give a measure of assurance that tankers are being maintained and operated safely.

"It's saying, "Look, Public, we're doing as much as can be done to ensure safety," said one classification society executive.