Are our ferries really protected from terrorism?

The tragedy of Sept. 11 in New York City has repercussions in Puget Sound country with a new level of risk to ferry passengers. In recognition of that exposure to terrorist attacks, a deadline was established for this December that the state’s ferry system must meet homeland security requirements to reduce threats and to reduce casualties should hostile action occur.

Under cognizance of the U.S. Coast Guard, all public and private users of the waterways must submit security plans that would moderate risks to the 27 million passengers carried annually by the nation’s largest car and passenger marine carrier.

Safety of life and property at sea has been mandated by federal legislation for almost two centuries. The specific threat of terrorism was recognized in the 1980s, leading Congress to pass the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act in 1986 and even stronger measures soon after. Very little was accomplished, however, until activities by numerous federal agencies were consolidated in a new department and given legislative teeth to enhance safety to the entire spectrum of risks beyond terrorist machinations.

Washington State Ferries has a splendid record of safety, but specialists in risk management have emphasized that infrequent accidents with calamitous consequences do not yield to statistical analysis. Risk reduction thus requires the application of all feasible measures, subject to limitations of cost and convenience. That ferry passengers were subject to unnecessary risks was reported in a far-reaching study released in 1982 on “Improving Marine Traffic Safety on Puget Sound Waterways.”

That assessment, conducted by Dr. Edward Wenk Jr. at the University of Washington, was triggered by concerns of a massive oil spill from tankers traversing the Sound, of the scale of spill and associated damage exhibited by the wreck of the Exxon Valdez seven years later.

In examining the entire spectrum of traffic on our waterways, the study found that ferries licensed to carry up to 2,500 passengers had life jackets for all, but only one lifeboat to rescue some falling overboard. Of vital concern was the fate of passengers forced by fire or imminent sinking to abandon ship because, as was dramatized with the movie Titanic,people in life jackets would not survive long. That deficiency has been partly resolved.

A second problem identified by the report was the lack of a credible emergency response, especially at night and in stormy weather. Both conditions now warrant a completely new evaluation.

Five circumstances mentioned in the 1982 report deserve review in relation to terrorist threats to ferries:

n The entire mix of ship traffic needs to be included because container/cargo ships, fishing vessels, naval vessels, cruise ships and recreational boaters bother offer rescue potential but also compound the sources of threat.

n Apart from dangers from another vessel such as exhibited by the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, threats can develop from the air as happened on 9/11, from vehicles on board and even from walk-ons.

n Rescue and contingency plans for causalities need to be fleshed out in detail and tested through rehearsals, frequently.

n The maritime system is composed of numerous federal, state, local and private agencies, and these need strong coordination with effective communications for coherence in command and control, especially when synthesizing intelligence that seems not to have been exchanged in the run-up to 9/11; among other things, tensions that have occurred between the coast Guard and state authorities need to be resolved.

n All of the measures already being considered including those suggested here require effective planning and then adequate funding for implementation. Evidence seems mounting that federal authorities may be constrained by limited budgets in carrying our their mandated tasks, apart from limits on funds to state and local agencies that may be among early responders.

Putting our predicament in perspective, it is essential that efforts be reinforced to focus on prevention, just as is entailed in enhancing safety from causes other than terrorist malevolence.

Many different stakeholders should contribute to formulation of the region’s security — ferry operators and crew, unions, the U.S. Coast Guard, owners and operators of merchant vessels and tankers, fishermen, police and fire personnel, medical personnel, commuters and environmentalists.

The integration of many different views so that all the pieces of a contingency plan fit together is essential for successful implementation. that will take powerful leadership talent and commitment, especially from the U.S. Coast Guard.

To that end, it is for all have responsibilities in this system to be better informed on the nature of terrorism. their acts are driven by emotion and radical perspectives that are unpredictable and potentially catastrophic, where perpetrators have the advantage of surprise and unsymmetrical relationship between a limited cause and a colossal effect. Consider how small were the planes in proportion to the two trade center towers and the thousands of humans who were destroyed.

It is essential that a new study of safety on Puget Sound waterways be undertaken.

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Mary Raum, Ph.D. is a Port Orchard resident.

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