Ferry employee medical condition creates possible safety risk by Scott St. Clair Stretching things too tightly at Washington State Ferries has jeopardized the safety of people and property. Part one of this two-part investigation reported that an inflexible fuel-savings effort with no room for unexpected but anticipated situations resulted in the August 30 “hard landing” of the M/V Wenatchee. Now, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation has learned that the Coast Guard opened a case file to investigate the February 2009 on-duty collapse into a diabetic coma of a chief engineer on the M/V Walla Walla. Acting on a tip from an informant, the Coast Guard opened the file. The name of the individual is not being disclosed since the investigation is ongoing. Attempts to reach him for an interview were referred by him to the WSF communications department for response. The engine room log book for the boat and e-mails between WSF officials confirm that a “diabetic related injury occurred” and that 911 was called. Dispatch records from the Seattle Fire Department disclose that emergency medical personnel responded to a call from Todd Shipyard, where the Walla Walla was in dry dock, to come to the aid of a 50-year-old male. WSF Communications Director Marta Coursey initially brushed off requests for comment about the incident and the Coast Guard investigation. She dismissed the incident as “mere conjecture” and the Coast Guard inquiry as “speculation.” When confronted with documented evidence of the incident, she conceded in an e-mail that it took place, that the employee required medical attention, an ambulance was called, he was treated at the scene, and that he required no further treatment. She went on to write that preparation of a Coast Guard accident form was “was not required because the incident occurred while the vessel was in drydock/not in service and the incident did not constitute a reportable marine casualty.” Internal WSF reporting protocols, however, call for a formal report be made to the Coast Guard and the Washington State Department of Transportation for “an injury to a crewmember…which requires professional medical treatment beyond first aid…” This language is adapted from similar Coast Guard language. A source close to the Coast Guard investigation, who would comment only on an off-the-record basis, said it’s an open question whether WSF or the affected employee was under a legal obligation to notify it of the incident because of the technicality cited by Coursey. Current 1 | P a g e
reporting regulations generally cover either accidents or illness-related incidents while a vessel is in service, not while it is tied up for maintenance. But some notification was in order, the source said, even if it was only a phone call. He conceded that the employee may lose his license as a result of his condition and the failure to notify. When told of the Walla Walla log entries and e-mails that confirmed the incident, he said he was unaware of them, but that the Coast Guard would obtain them. The WSF internal e-mails include one demanding a written explanation by management personnel for their failure to prepare a Coast Guard accident report form. WSF says the requested explanation was not written. The employee remains on duty as a chief engineer on board the Walla Walla. According to Coursey, he was medically evaluated and deemed fit for duty. Lt. Com. Matthew Denning, the Coast Guard officer in charge of safety investigations in Seattle said, “Any time we get any indication of any medical condition with any licensed personnel, the continuation of the license is under investigation.” In a follow-up e-mail Denning wrote, “The designation of fit for duty requires a careful evaluation,” and that “a medical condition by itself is not incompetence” if it can be controlled. Like the Wenatchee hard landing, the Walla Walla incident has the potential for disaster. It’s not uncommon for a chief engineer to be alone in the engine room, said an inside-WSF source whose identity cannot be disclosed out of fear of retaliation. The source, who holds a similar position on another boat, said that a telegraphic command relayed to the engine room when that vessel’s chief engineer is incapable of responding can result in serious consequences that would make the Wenatchee “hard landing” incident pale in comparison. He offered the example of a sailboat with a ferry bearing down upon where the ferry is unable to slow up or maneuver to avoid the sailboat. The duties of a chief engineer require that an individual be “100 percent,” said the source. “If you’re there alone, you can’t have a failure.” And it’s common for a chief engineer to be alone. If engine-room personnel are off doing other duties, and a command comes down from the pilot house, only the chief engineer is left to respond. Anywhere from five to 15 minutes during a 30 to 40 minute ferry crossing is spent this way, said the source. “When you’re alone, you have to stand right by the throttle, the ship service generator, and the fire pump,” said the source. “No getting a cup of coffee or hitting the head. During inclement weather, the literal need to keep hands on the equipment every minute increases.”
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The WSF chief engineer job description plus other WSF procedural guidelines describe an active and engaged individual who must be alert and up to the task at all times. While the Coast Guard investigation of this incident continues, a senior official said there is no immediate concern. That assurance isn’t shared by some in the fleet.
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