Coast Guard says state ferries must add more life rafts

By David Gutman

The Seattle Times

Washington State Ferries will spend $5 million over the next 2½ years to buy 70 new life rafts for its vessels, following an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Most ferries in Washington have been running under a rule called “alternate compliance,” which requires them to have enough life rafts for only half as many people as are on board.

The theory behind the rule is that because most ferries share their route with another vessel, that other boat — and its additional life rafts — would be near enough to help in an emergency.

So, for instance, a Jumbo Mark II class ferry — the system’s largest, which runs on the Seattle-Bremerton route — can carry just over 2,500 passengers but only has to have life rafts for 1,250 passengers.

That’s now changing, following a new risk assessment by the Coast Guard.

“We continued to evaluate and review incidents at other places in the country and worldwide to look at how the risk profile has changed,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. John Fu told the Kitsap Sun.

“Now we realize the risk profile changed considerably where we felt it was worthwhile to revise the alternate compliance plan.”

The Coast Guard now will require each ferry to have enough life raft systems, which includes a raft and a slide for evacuating passengers, to cover every passenger on board.

The change will technically result in a loss of passenger capacity, as Washington State Ferries will not put enough life rafts on each vessel to correspond with the vessel’s maximum possible capacity. Rather, the agency will supply rafts to cover the high-end estimates of what each vessel normally carries.

Those 2,500-passenger-capacity ferries normally carry about 1,800 passengers, Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling said, so they’ll have life rafts to correspond with that number.

“We rarely if ever hit the capacity that’s listed at them now,” Sterling said. “We would maybe surpass that once or twice a year on a given route.”

While that is technically a loss of capacity, there are certain instances in which capacity will actually increase, Sterling said.

Alternate compliance

Under the alternate compliance rule, if only one ferry is working a route — because it’s late at night or because the other ferry on the route is in for maintenance — it is not allowed to carry its full capacity because there would be no other vessel around to supply additional life boats in case of emergency.

In a situation like this, that 2,500-passenger ferry could carry only 1,250 passengers. Under the new rule, once it has its additional life rafts, it could carry about 1,800 passengers.

“This will have minimal impact” on passengers, Sterling said. “They’ll either notice nothing or there will be a few times when we are actually more full up.”

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Distributed by The Associated Press.

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