Friday, January 13, 2012

Spinning more than the propellers

[I was actually working on something new and "tankerish" since it has been my good fortune to have made several trips up Douglas Channel as Chief Mate in nothing less than a chemical tanker carrying condensate. That, however, will have to wait, so check back in the next few days for it. This latest little bit of incident involving a BC Ferry is more immediate.]

Right now BC Ferries must be feeling a bit beleaguered, not unlike Al Capp's, Joe Btfsplk.

The latest mishap to befall the company is an engineering casualty in MV Queen of Oak Bay. Apparently there was smoke in the engine room and the master quite rightly issued a call for assistance after going to fire stations.

What isn't clear, (and it won't be until an initial investigation is completed), is what actually happened. There are initial reports that the QoOB suffered a crankcase explosion. Subsequently Deborah Marshall, BC Ferries public information person, stated that it was a smoking clutch.

There would be no reason to disbelieve Ms. Marshall's statement if it weren't for one major issue: BC Ferries has been less than sincerely honest when answering public questions. Understandably, BC Ferries would like to mitigate the effect of such mishaps by, perhaps, minimizing them to the point of insignificance. A loss of public confidence in British Columbia's Crown-owned ferry system could create a debilitating effect on ridership especially during the high tourist season.

Now we get further questions because the past obfuscations leave everyone in doubt. Was it a smoking clutch, or was it a crankcase problem? Or would it have been best to simply say, we have not yet isolated the source of the smoke.

And then there's the smoke issue. According to Ms. Marshall:
It's my understanding the smoke was contained to below the car deck
Yet according to a passenger:
We could see smoke and some of the employees began getting into firefighting outfits. They started pushing us all to the front of the boat and closed the fire doors to the rest of the boat.
Somebody has it wrong. The passenger description suggests that he was in the passenger area, (the presence of fire doors), and that smoke did infiltrate above the car decks.

Ms. Marshall is but the voice of a larger body. That body, however, has been consistent in masking the events surrounding incidents of this nature and the past behaviour of hiding information until they were ordered to submit to FOI requests does nothing to garner public confidence - in either the information nor the system itself.

By way of example, when the Queen of Nanaimo failed to slow on 3 August and hit the berth at Mayne Island it was blamed on the ship picking up a crab trap line and shaking loose a pair of dowels on the port hydraulic distribution box. My chief engineer at the time read the report and said, "Not bloody likely."

Subsequently an internal BC Ferries investigation turned up that the dowels in the port hydraulic distribution box were not properly secured. Vibration, the report concluded, would not have been enough to shake loose the dowels. Crab trap line or not, those dowels were going to work their way loose.

The fact is a more honest approach would be to simply admit to not having enough information to answer immediate questions. And for those questions to which there are clear answers, just answer truthfully. As can be seen from past incidents, when the initial minimizing turns out to be completely false the loss of confidence is immediate and lasting.

I might add that the redactions on page 15 and Appendix B-SOR14 of this report simply generates suspicion when not properly explained.

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