Coast Guard requiring additional ferry crew

OLYMPIA — The U.S. Coast Guard is ordering Washington State Ferries to increase the number of crew members on its largest vessels to improve safety.

The decision likely will cost the financially ailing agency hundreds of thousands of dollars it does not have, and comes just as short staffing that caused runs to be cancelled got the attention of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Gregoire on Thursday said ferry workers would face discipline if their failure to show up for work is intentional. Ferry runs are cancelled when the boats do not have minimum staffing, which is set by the Coast Guard.

On Friday, Coast Guard officials decided that the state needs one more crewman added to the minimum on the Jumbo class of 188-car vessels used on the Edmonds-Kingston run and other routes. They also want to beef up the number and skills of crew members on the smaller Super class 144-car ferries.

The revised crew requirements must be in place by the end of November, according to the eight-page letter sent to state and ferry worker union officials.

The changes “are not an implication that WSF’s safety record is substandard,” Coast Guard Capt. Scott Ferguson said in the letter.

“WSF operates a large fleet in a demanding and complex operating environment that mandates providing essential resources to further protect the ferries from the low probability but high consequence event of a ferry collision or sinking,” he wrote.

The state is accepting the new requirements though there are some questions to be cleared up, said David Moseley, assistant secretary of transportation.

“My job is to implement the regulations,” he said. “We’re seeking some clarification on staffing and the time-frame for implementing them.”

To comply may require hiring the equivalent of nine to 12 full-time employees, he said.

“We don’t know how much it will cost,” he said. “It will certainly cost more than we have in the budget.”

In June, the state reduced the number of crew members on the Jumbo and Super classes of vessels to what the Coast Guard then considered the minimum needed for safe operation of the boats, which carry thousands of cars and passengers each day. In doing so, the size of crews shrunk by up to three people.

Ferry worker unions objected to the state’s action and pushed the Coast Guard to reexamine its rules.

They expressed concerns about safety and what might happen in emergencies with fewer workers.

“I believe our objections to lowering manning over safety issues were correct and almost vindicated,” said Jay Ubelhart, business agent for the Inlandboatmen’s Union, which represents roughly 900 ferry workers. “We’ll now have bigger crews and more effective response.”

Historically, the ferries assigned more crew on each sailing than the minimum, so if an employee got sick, overslept or got delayed by a flat tire it did not result in a run being scuttled.

Ubelhart said the Coast Guard order is an opportunity for the state DOT to “rethink their staffing levels” and consider a return to old practices.

The state intends to staff at the exact levels demanded by the Coast Guard, Moseley said.

“Going forward there won’t be a cushion,” he said. “We can’t add on top of that.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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