Coast Guard Orders Washington State Ferries to Keep Crew Members

The Coast Guard has sent a letter to state and union officials, demanding that the Washington State Ferry system restore the crew complement on several of their boats for safety reasons. In the 8-page letter, the Coast Guard said they made the decision by analyzing all of the responsibilities each crew must undertake.

“(We analyzed) the crew’s ability to perform normal duties of operation and maintenance, and their ability to perform emergency duties, such as firefighting, vessel evacuation, man overboard, and security threat response,” wrote Scott Ferguson, U.S. Coast Guard, Commander, Sector Puget Sound.

In a letter to WSF director David Moseley, Cmdr. Ferguson said the agency was restoring an ordinary seaman to the Jumbo boats — WALLA WALLA and SPOKANE.The changes will go into effect within 30 days, according to the letter. They came after boat captains sent concerns about the cuts to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard analyzed what numbers would be sufficient in worst-case scenarios like onboard fire and abandon ship.

Unions that represent ferry employees had lobbied the Coast Guard to increase the minimum levels of crewing. In June the ferry system reduced the number of employees on several vessels to save money. That angered many employees who did not believe sailing at the lower levels was safe.

“I don’t think there should have been a reduction in the first place, and the Coast Guard made the proper decision after reviewing the facts,” said Dennis Conklin, Puget Sound Region director for the Inlandboatman’s Union, which represents the ordinary seamen. “We put it in the Coast Guard’s hands to make that decision, which is the way it should have been done in the beginning, and they should have had all the facts instead of the limited facts the ferry system gave them.”

“We’re definitely happy about it,” said Conklin. “They should have never decreased manning in the first place. It was a safety issue. There are risk factors there.”

The manning requirements imposed by the Coast Guard place some political and economic issues in high relief. There will be those who contend that the union is “feather-bedding” with the complicity of the Federal government. Others will applaud the Coast Guard’s insistence on sufficient crew to protect passengers and the waters of Puget Sound. All of which is complicated by state budget constraints and the need to move people and vehicles across our inland wateways.

It appears the Coast Guard took the correct approach, by analyzing the duties of crewmembers and requiring sufficient personnel to discharge those duties. At the end of the day, safety considerations must be paramount.

The admiralty and maritime lawfirm of Anderson Carey Alexander has represented injured seamen for more than three decades. We have proudly represented members of the Inland Boatman’s Union in casualty litigation. We stand with the union and with the Coast Guard in support of manning requirements which protect the safety of passengers and crewmembers alike.

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