B.C. Ferries’ evacuation systems come under fire

In the wake of the Korean ferry tragedy, questions need to be asked about a problematic new system and fleet safety training

Most people think of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic as the worst loss of life in maritime history, with more than 1,500 victims. However, the sinking of the German refugee/hospital ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945—with the loss of up to 9,400 lives, including those of 5,000 children and infants—holds the record.

Improved safety standards and better communications have resulted in fewer deaths at sea in more recent decades, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reporting only 1,925 passengers lost worldwide between 2006 and 2011. Almost 1,000 of those perished in one ferry sinking.

The April 16 sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol, however, with the probable loss of more than 300 passengers, mostly schoolchildren, demonstrates how nautical disasters can still strike without warning.

That tragic accident should prompt calls for renewed oversight of B.C. Ferries’ evacuation systems, which on some ships could be useless in a Sewol-style calamity.

 Most B.C. ferries not bound by international standard

The sinking of the Titanic resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a maritime treaty ensuring that ships flagged by signatory states comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment, and operation.

SOLAS and its revisions are one of the most important international treaties concerning maritime safety. Cruise ships in Canadian waters are bound by SOLAS regulations.

But if you thought B.C. Ferries vessels would be bound by SOLAS, you’d be wrong. Because B.C. Ferries doesn’t operate in international waters, its ships are not required by Transport Canada to be SOLAS-compliant. Only the Greek-built MV Northern Adventure on B.C.’s north coast is SOLAS-compliant.

B.C. Ferries began plying coastal waters in 1960 with two terminals, two ships, and 200 employees. Today, as the largest ferry service in North America, B.C. Ferries employs 4,700 employees, has 35 ships docking in 47 locations, and carries 21 million passengers annually.

IMO code "voluntary adopted"

In 1997 B.C. Ferries voluntarily adopted the IMO’s International Safety Management Code, which provides an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships.

Every year, B.C. Ferries logs hundreds of safety incidents, but most are minor. In 54 years, the former Crown corporation, commercialized in 2003, has had its fair share of collisions, fires, and mishaps but has lost only one ferry, the MV Queen of the North, which ran aground on Gil Island in 2006 and sank, with the loss of two passengers.

The Queen of the North had life rafts and traditional davit-loading lifeboats. Beginning in 2003, davit-loading lifeboats were replaced on three of B.C. Ferries’ Lower Mainland–Sunshine Coast “C-class” vessels (the Queen of Coquitlam, Queen of Cowichan, and Queen of Surrey) by the marine evacuation system (MES) Marin Ark 1, which deploys a vertical chute into enclosed life rafts.

Other ships in the fleet do not use the vertical-chute system but employ airline-style open slides.

Some B.C. ferries carry as many as 900 children

Plying Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia, B.C. Ferries’ C-class vessels, the above three as well as the Queen of Oak Bay and Queen of Alberni, were built between 1976 and 1981. They are roll-on, roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferries, designed to carry wheeled traffic. (The Sewol was a Ro-Ro ferry like the Queen of the North.) Below the open car deck, C-class ships have watertight compartments.

Most C-class vessels carry a maximum of 1,488 passengers and crew. Some summer sailings to Sunshine Coast camps have had as many as 900 children aboard, far more than on the doomed Sewol.

Evac chutes can drop 23 metres

Unfortunately, the Marin Ark 1 MES isn’t perfect, and international tests and drills in recent years have resulted in vertical-chute injuries and at least one death in a Marin Ark 1.

Designed and developed in Belfast by RFD Beaufort (now Survitec Group) and approved by Transport Canada, the Marin Ark 1 uses a collapsible, vertical fabriclike chute that drops between eight and 23.5 metres into four connected inflatable life rafts. The chutes are designed to slow descent.

Twin chutes on each side of the ship can drop passengers into four 100-person life rafts on each side of the vessel. Survitec claims that the vertical-chute system is the “best solution for the least money” and can evacuate “up to 860 passengers in less than 30 minutes”.

New B.C. Ferry evac system never proven

The trouble is that the new system might not be able to deploy properly—or perhaps at all—with a stricken vessel listing more than 20 degrees, which is the regulatory standard under the Canada Shipping Act and meets SOLAS standards. If an emergency occurs, evacuation times are short if water reaches the car deck: the Sewol, reportedly, developed a 43-degree list in only 16 minutes.

There are 1,000 Marin Ark 1 evacuation systems installed worldwide, and according to information sent to the Georgia Straight by Survitec spokesman Richard McCormick, as of March 2014 the system had never actually been used in an emergency event.

During a phone interview, in response to a question about whether or not the Marin Ark 1 system would be deployable with a 10-degree or higher list, B.C. Ferries vice president of fleet operations Capt. Jamie Marshall said: “They will operate at a 20-degree list and a 10-degree heel. Marin Ark 1 is compliant [with regulations] with that.”

Ferry official: safe for three-year-old daughter

Marshall says anyone can use the chutes. “I put my three-year-old daughter through it [the chute] and she was fine,” he said.

Women with babies can use the chute system, Marshall added, although evacuation signage aboard these C-class vessels shows an evacuee with hands above his head and appears to advise against holding purses, backpacks, and shoes in your hands.

Marshall also said anyone who doesn’t want to, or can’t, use the chutes during an evacuation could use one of eight 25-person inflatable life rafts located on the upper deck of all five of the C-class vessels. He added that wheelchair-bound passengers on the lower car deck would have to be carried to upper decks, as elevators are not in use during an emergency.

Retired B.C. Ferry captain critical

Capt. William Cursiter—who worked on 20 B.C. Ferries vessels, including 12 as master, and who has also worked European ferries—is now retired and is president of the nonprofit B.C. Coastal Transportation Society (BCCTS).

“We have concerns about B.C. Ferries’ evacuation plans, particularly for people with disabilities,” he told the Straight by phone. “I was on a ship and asked the captain how they’d get wheelchair-bound passengers up to the life rafts and was told: ‘We’ll get a hockey team to carry them.’ You can’t always depend on having a hockey team onboard.”

Cursiter, who was involved with B.C. Ferries safety programs in the past, added: “If water gets onto the car deck, those roll-on, roll-off ships list pretty quickly….Why fit a [MES] system on a ship that will at some point list greater than 10 or 20 degrees? I find it difficult to understand.”

He added: “Transport Canada should shoulder some of the blame. They don’t approve evacuation plans; they approve evacuation systems."

No plans to upgrade evac system for two decades

B.C. Ferries is not planning to upgrade its Marin Ark 1 system to the newer Marin Ark 2, Marshall said, because the current evacuation system is expected to function for the next 20 years—the planned life of the three vessels.

In his 2006 master’s thesis, a comparative analysis of lifeboat accidents, Trevor Ross—now marine operations manager at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England—wrote: “MES systems are not trouble-free; injuries including broken ankles and arms have been reported and one woman died of asphyxia when her body jackknifed within the chute.”

Volunteer died testing system

In 2002—the year before B.C. Ferries bought the system for the Queen of Surrey and Queen of Coquitlam and six years before it fitted the Queen of Cowichan—during a dockside drill in quiet waters in the ferry port of Dover, England, a 52-year-old volunteer died after entering the Marin Ark 1 chute.

Her life vest rode up and she apparently splayed her legs in an attempt to slow her descent, presumably to reposition the life vest. Because her body was heavier than her legs, her legs rose over her head. She was in a pike position when a crewman found her four minutes later. He couldn’t pull her into an upright position.

After six minutes in the chute, she was cut free but had died from positional asphyxia, which can occur when abdominal contents are compressed upward against the diaphragm and preventing breathing.

A 2008 study of vertical-chute evacuation systems—by Alexandra Farrow and Daniel Harwood for London’s Brunel University—found that short and heavy trainees using the vertical chutes had increased odds of suffering injuries, but it concluded that appropriate training and well-briefed operators could reduce adverse events. All injuries studied occurred during dockside drills.

Harwood, now the principal investigator of marine accidents for the U.K. Department of Transport, told the Straight by phone that he’s aware of “several instances [since 2008] where trainees have got stuck in chutes and suffered injuries”.

System failed in English test

And according to the Southampton-based Marine Accident Investigation Branch, in 2008 the Marin Ark 1 system vertical chutes failed during drill deployment on the P & O ferry Pride of Canterbury in Dover. Survitec notified Marin Ark 1 users of the failure, which occurred as a result of cable and sea-air corrosion problems.

Chris Abbott, president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, informed the Straight that to avoid injuries, B.C. Ferries crews no longer use the chutes during drills.

Cursiter is critical. “B.C. Ferries’ management system has a corporate culture of safety apathy.…They brought in a Danish-English SailSafe system and think it’s fixed problems. My concern is training; it doesn’t go far enough. Not to European standards.

"Better broken bones than dead"

“They [B.C. Ferries crews] can’t assist a person from a wheelchair and their evacuation plans don’t go into enough detail in how to do it. There’s a safety apathy toward the disabled. I attended a safety training course with RFD [now Survitec] personnel and I said, ‘If an elderly person uses the chute and has osteoporosis, they’ll have broken bones.’ I was told: ‘Better broken bones than dead.’ ”

Cursiter also said he was warned not to be too insistent about safety. “I was told by a marine superintendent that bringing up safety issues could affect further promotion.…For the last two years, I refused to work as captain for safety reasons.”

The BCCTS is so concerned about disabled access during evacuation that they have made submissions to B.C.’s recently finished Disability White Paper Consultation and to the Canadian Marine Advisory Council.

Special-needs passengers can't use system

According to the BCCTS, marine-industry “special-needs passengers” include all children too small to use evacuation equipment on their own, persons too large to safely use evacuation equipment, infants, the disabled, and elderly persons who require assistance or who might be fatally injured using evacuation equipment.
BCCTS also includes in that category passengers returning from hospital after surgery that might affect their ability to be evacuated.

Cursiter said he feels that B.C. Ferries’ evacuation and training standards aren’t equivalent to European or, in some cases, other Canadian standards. “In Nova Scotia, the ferry system has a training video so crew learn how to lift passengers from wheelchairs…Here, they seem to be reliant on volunteer passengers.”

The BCCTS is also concerned that B.C. Ferries is relying on self-identification/registration by disabled passengers—a concept that relies on all passengers being aware of the policy and having access to the Internet to register.

B.C. Ferries gets federal safety "exemptions"

B.C. Ferries averages 1,000 safety drills a year and is bound by the Canada Shipping Act and its Life Saving Equipment Regulations unless granted exemptions by Transport Canada’s Marine Technical Review Board.

According to the BCCTS website, B.C. Ferries has received “hundreds” of exemptions in previous decades.

In 2011, B.C. Ferries’ C-class vessels were granted extended evacuation times, from 30 minutes to 45 minutes, for the summer months only. These exemptions expire in 2017.

Not aware of exemptions

Barry Cavens, chair of B.C. Ferries’ southern Sunshine Coast ferry advisory committee (FAC), was surprised. “We’re not aware of any exemptions granted by Transport Canada.”

Cavens added that with fare hikes, loss of seniors’ discounts, and reductions in sailings, safety hasn’t been one of the issues the FAC is dealing with.

“Sometimes you have to trust B.C. Ferries and hope Transport Canada will do the right thing,” he said.

B.C. Ferries: "We can evacuate...in half an hour"

B.C. Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall explained the exemptions: “B.C. Ferries didn’t ask Transport Canada for those [evacuation] exemptions…It’s part of a renewal of an old board decision that was granted in the ’80s when we had davits to launch lifeboats. We didn’t ask for them to renew those decisions. We have a new system [Marin Ark 1] and don’t need them…We can evacuate these ships in half an hour.”

Marshall refused comment on whether or not the federal Conservatives’ recent closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base represented a potential “deficit” in emergency-evacuation assistance for B.C. Ferries.





Apr 23, 2014 at 4:38pm

Can you imagine trying to climb up the now vertical deck of the ship if it was listing at an angle? Survival stories from the ESTONIA that went down in the Baltic tell of this nightmare .
The author is right ,reaching chutes or lifeboats would be near impossible for many.
I can't see a solution ,except to stop using large passenger ferries.

Captain PFM

Apr 24, 2014 at 10:04am

Unfortunately, lifeboats for passenger vessels (with traditional davits) are limited in cases of severe list as well. In the middle of the ocean where rescue may be days away, or more, I would greatly prefer to be in a lifeboat. But, in Coastal areas, and in cold water, we have to give some thought to systems which allow for the most number of people to exit the vessel as quickly as possible without jumping over the side. I'm not an apologist for the MEC scheme (I refused to test-jump during training,) but far more people have been injured in lifeboat launching, evacuation and training accidents than will happen in a lifetime of MEC installation on ships.

I am a champion of the media helping to recognize problems, but maritime and safety professionals need to be the ones to solve them - they are not going to be solved by journalists or the public. Even after notable accidents such as the EXXON VALDEZ, QUEEN OF THE NORTH, and COSTA CONCORDIA, I am appalled at the general lack of knowledge of the authors who pen most mainstream news pieces. Obviously this is based upon my level of knowledge (30 years at sea) and the need for journalists to be generalists (and timely and literate.) Especially in the US, the 24 hour news cycle is a dagger in the heart of credible journalism.

The poor (in hindsight) implementation of the evacuation plan on the SEWOL was wrong but based on the real conundrum of the logistics of a mass evacuation. The Captain's first instinct to not have hypothermic teenagers floating down-tide spread out over miles of the Yellow Sea was correct.

For anyone who has ever worked on ferries or passenger ships, the idea of stranding passengers (especially children) belowdecks is the stuff nightmares are made of. I disagree heartily with the politically-inspired comments by the President of the ROK that the Master's actions were murderous, but I hope with a reasoned, intelligent investigation this type of tragedy may be avoided in the future.

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Ivana B.

Apr 24, 2014 at 12:50pm

In an abandon ship event there is the possibility that some life boats could float free and people might be able to access them ala Titanic. But it would be harder to do with life rafts that might not deploy.

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Captain PFM

Apr 24, 2014 at 3:55pm

There is no way a lifeboat might float free, undamaged. Liferafts are made to float free with hydrostatic releases if the vessel sinks.

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Apr 25, 2014 at 7:39pm

I teach / train others in passenger marine and aviation craft evacuation and emergency preparedness. My family and I are passengers aboard ferries and airliners. No mode of transportation is ever totally risk free.

SOLAS Convention signatory nations abide by standards for international voyage safety including systems, planning, management, training and certification, inspection and procedures. Domestic voyages in Canadian waters adhere to comparable standards for planning, preparedness, inspection, systems, communications, search and rescue and a myriad of other 'major' disasters at sea protocols, through Transport Canada marine and air regulatory divisions. (TC's rail industry related accident response protocols and other standards have been under scrutiny lately.)

Similarly ICAO signatories adhere to commercial aviation contingency standards like the black box pingers on Malaysian commercial airliners.

Evacuation into lifeboats also leads to injury and unintended deaths. So does sliding down inflatable escape chutes from the upper decks of jumbo jets. During a BC Ferries MES evacuation training drill, monitored by Transport Canada Marine (ship safety) I mildly hurt one of my ankles when I slid down the chute into the liferaft tethered to the side of the ship (like a water bed). Calm seas, no listing or heeling. But I got off the ship in one piece.

Evac systems are designed by engineers to meet probabilities at an affordable cost and are oriented to able bodied evacuees. As society encourages full participation by the disabled (who need to have a competent able bodied companion, just as minors do also) is society also ready to absorb the costs assiciated with providing a highly reliable contingency standard for those in need of extra help? We pay more $$$ so seniors can be cared for when they cant look after their own needs any longer.

We all assume risks whether we like it or admit to it; or not.

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Apr 25, 2014 at 10:58pm

Re: Kits coast guard closure... The BC ferries operating to/from Horseshoe Bay and Tsawassen terminals (and indeed every other port served) are very well equipped to be self sufficient for man overboard emergencies (per TCMS standards) and carry multiple fast response craft similar in MOB recovery capability to the former Kitsilano SAR 733/750 self righting rigid inflatable lifeboats and the very much slower and sinkable 41 foot motor utility boat Osprey. In the event of a MASSCASualty type event, a small armada of agency and private vessels and hovercraft would respond to a MAYDAY distress call put out by a large passenger vessel. This is per the Canada Shipping Act.

Ultimately a Cdn Coast Guard or a Royal Canadian Navy (if in the vicinity) vessel master could be tasked to assume the On Scene Co-Ordinator role in such a disaster scenario, which is practiced (exercised). Or it could be a Royal Canadian Marine Search And Rescue coxswain. There are generally many civilian aircraft transitting overhead into YVR main and south terminals and Coal Harbour seaplane and heli terminal. Joint (air-sea) Rescue Co-Ordination Centre Victoria could conceivably task the twin high capacity sea buses and other hi capacity vessels to assist if the situation and conditions warranted. VFR Fireboats, Port Metro Van harbour patrol, VPD & RCMP, Fisheries & Oceans, Cda Border Services, (some with their added vessels post 2010 Winter Games maritime domain security duties) all have vessels and crews at various states of readiness for deployment. And don't forget the guys and gals of Jericho, RVYC and other club safety boats.

Kitsilano who?

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Martin Dunphy

Apr 25, 2014 at 11:45pm


So, how are things in the PMO?

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Lee L

Apr 26, 2014 at 11:25am

A most interesting article, and well researched. Congrats Georgia Straight.

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Apr 27, 2014 at 4:40am

A disaster near English Bay ... a plane lands short of the airport or a ferry has a major fire ... 250 people unexpectedly need to be saved... but how?

As spndx66 noted, a structure is in place where boats would swing into action like they did that day on the Hudson River.

The survivors would need to be brought to shore and treated. They might be in life rafts towed back to Spanish Banks, where the rescue hovercraft can also make their way from the bay up the mud flats... to awaiting ambulance cars and ambulance buses all lined up, ready to whisk them to UBC hospital, VGH and St. Pauls once triaged in the parking lot. Police cordon off the access and egress routes to traffic while cyclists and dog walkers gawk at the spectacle of flashing lights and emergency response vehicles. Fire department Hazmat crews arrive to set up and operate decontamination stations for people covered in jet fuel or marine bunker.

Red Cross disaster response team sets up on the parking lot to record details so all survivors are accounted for and can be reunited with loved ones. Salvation Army arrives with coffee, food and water for responders and survivors alike. Portable flood lighting is set up and connected to the grid by BC Hydro crews as the sun sets.

BC Coroners Service and Transportation Safety Board investigators arrive to play their parts, as does the media, including a traffic and news reporting helicopter hovering overhead.

While local first responder crews are engaged, outlying sister units are redeployed to cover and backfill. Reserve staff are called to report in as a second line shift.

The major hospitals would be alerted to incoming large numbers needing care ... so extra health care staff are paged back to work. Trauma counsellors and victim services workers are activated. BC Ferries establishes a family reception centre. The Prime Minister, the Premier and the Mayor all express sympathy and promise support to get through this terrible mishap.

It's not about any one single agency or station or team or entity. Rather it is through a collective, collaborative, joint, co-ordinated, rehearsed effort that tragic loss of life can be minimized.

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Pat Crowe

Apr 27, 2014 at 7:31pm

I have never been on a B.C. ferry when it has done a "hard over" and the take away I get from this latest ferry disaster is that when steering malfunctions as detailed by the Korean crew(or was the ships steering in autopilot and the crewman dialed in a turn to quickly for the speed?} and the ship goes into a hard, fast, full turn the cars and or cargo below decks can tumble into the side of the bulkhead and cause the ship to list dangerously. This is a scenario that could play out in the straits with so many inexperienced pleasure operators cutting across the bows of the big ships. My question to B.C. Ferries is under that situation how do the large ferries perform under a hard, fast turn, with a full load? What degree of list is there to the ships in a full load, full speed, hard turn? Or does the sucka who crosses the bow just eat ferry? What is the policy on that situation?

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