TSB featured article

Moving forward after a night to remember

By Jonathan Seymour, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

(This article was initially published in the Vancouver Sun, in October 2010.)

On the night of March 22, 2006, the passenger ferry Queen of the North sank en route from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy. The night's exact narrative may forever be shrouded in uncertainty, but the important details are clear: a missed waypoint, the striking with Gil Island, and liferafts filled with nervous passengers drifting over the black waters of Wright Sound while awaiting rescue. Woven into that story is the tragedy of two people who have been declared dead�overnight passengers who were somehow not counted during the abandonment.

Accidents, of course, never follow a script, but in this case several factors hampered the abandonment process: an incomplete passenger list, improper clearing of cabins, and crew members with limited experience in emergency response and crowd management. Even hours afterward, conflicting headcounts made it impossible to determine the number of those who had survived.

It is a basic principle of emergency response that, if you don't know how many people you have, you can't possibly know if they're all safe. That is why, following its investigation into the accident, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada made several recommendations. One of these urged Transport Canada (TC), along with the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Ferry Operators Association, to develop a framework to help ferry operators design effective passenger accounting for each vessel and route. The expectation was that operators would examine all of the associated risks and then create systems that were both practical and useful.

This wasn't the Board's first recommendation on the subject. Subsequent to a 1990 near-collision in Halifax harbour, it became clear that the number of people on board a ferry was often unknown to either the captain or any responsible person on shore.

A solution finally arrived this past April, with the coming into force of the new Fire and Boat Drill Regulations. Masters are now required to record both the number of persons onboard and the details of anyone who has declared a need for assistance in an emergency. For vessels and routes where there is overnight accommodation, additional information must be collected.

How this is done, of course, will vary—and clearly there are significant differences between ferries engaged on short trips in protected waters and those such as the Queen of the North that were engaged on overnight voyages across open waters. In no case, however, do schedules need to be disrupted or passengers inconvenienced. Take Vancouver’s Seabus, where turnstiles count each passenger as he or she enters the waiting platform, and a crew member can identify anyone, such as persons with disabilities, who might require extra assistance. At the other extreme is the modern cruise ship, where each passenger is issued a personalized ID card that is used for ship and cabin access, as well as charging shop and bar purchases. The most sophisticated versions can even locate individuals at any point on a vessel1—data which can be invaluable when determining, for instance, which cabins have been vacated or checked during an emergency, and which passengers have mustered at their lifeboat stations.

A second principle of emergency response is that, although not every situation can be predicted in advance, preparation and practice can reduce reaction times and improve performance, especially when time is critical. To this end, the Board recommended that TC establish criteria against which operators of passenger vessels can evaluate the preparedness of their crews to effectively manage passengers during an emergency. This included a requirement for realistic exercises.

To TC's credit, the aforementioned Fire and Boat Drill Regulations also contain measures to enhance emergency preparedness. These include allocating duties for locating and rescuing passengers who may be trapped in their cabins or are otherwise unaccounted for; ensuring a more orderly mustering of passengers in an emergency; and more realistic emergency and evacuation drills.

Regulations, however, aren't much good if they're not put into effect. In August 2010, with the ink barely dry on the new paperwork, three people were injured when the Queen of Nanaimo crashed into the dock at Mayne Island, B.C. A series of conflicting passenger counts offered up three different totals�none of which matched the number written in the ferry's logbook at departure. Maybe this is just a case of getting used to a new system, but clearly there is room to improve. TC has stepped up, but its efforts need to be backed up at the front lines, too. Sometimes a push in the right direction can help, and earlier this year the Board did just that by releasing its safety Watchlist. The document, which highlights nine key safety issues currently posing the greatest risk to Canadians, generated significant attention�from the media, from the government, and within the industry. Our goal was simple: raise awareness of longstanding problems�challenges that have proven difficult to solve�and spur action, so that solutions are found before more innocent Canadians die.

We appear to be on the right path. Since the Watchlist's release, TC has pushed hard to improve safety aboard Canadian ferries. Now, provided that ferry operators learn from occurrences like Queen of the North and Queen of Nanaimo and effectively implement the new legislation, our ferries will be much better prepared�and Canadians will be that much safer�in event of an emergency.

Jonathan Seymour is a Member of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.


1

This, however, has raised numerous questions—particularly those related to privacy.