Papers show ferry staffing shortages might have been avoidable

SEATTLE -- Staffing shortages on state ferries have led to 54 missed sailings so far and thousands left stranded on the dock. But a KOMO Problem Solvers investigation has now uncovered documents that show the state might have been able to avoid it.

Washington State has the largest ferry system in the country, but the unions representing the men and women who run the massive boats say the state has put it all at risk.

"When they decided to lower the manning, we felt it was a safety issue," said Jay Ubelhart with the Inland Boatmen's Union.

But Washington State Ferries director David Moseley insists safety remained number one, as he faced a mandate from Gov. Gregoire to cut spending.

"We never compromised the unparalleled safety record that we have," he said.

Moseley's plan? Cut the number of crew members. But Moseley needed Coast Guard approval.

After months of review, the Coast Guard issued a draft letter that determined WSF's plan would leave some boats "understaffed" possibly leaving the crew unable to adequately respond to emergencies.

"WSF knew last May or at least in early June, well in advance, the Coast Guard had found problems with manning on some of the classes of vessels," Ubelhart said.

Union leaders claim ferry officials suppressed the Coast Guard's findings to move ahead with reduced staffing during the busy summer season. The Problem Solvers uncovered hundreds of pages documents that seem to support some of the union's claims.

One internal email reads:

"This letter says 'draft' but sounds final. This is not good at all. We have not had the chance to make our case."

Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond's Chief of Staff suggests: "...time for a call from Paula? It will be hard to unring the bell."

Ubelhart said: "About the emails in particular, WSF went 'uh-oh' and did everything they could to quash the first letter and delay it."

I asked Moseley: "Did you try to suppress the Coast Guard report from coming out in the beginning of June knowing that June 17th your staffing levels are changing?"

He replied: "What we asked for was the same courtesy and opportunity that the Coast Guard had afforded to the unions."

The unions had already met with the Coast Guard and Moseley insists he only wanted the same. The delay dragged on, lower staffing levels went into effect and riders paid the price in dozens of ferry cancellations.

"We cannot afford it," Gregoire said. "Our public cannot afford it, they deserve better."

The unions claim the lower staffing could have been disastrous. In July, a car fire on the Mukilteo run meant a smaller staff had to fight the fire and leave the passenger decks unmanned. Union officials say if passengers had panicked, there would have been no one to guide them.

"We probably needed slightly higher staffing during the busier peak seasons," Moseley said.

The Coast Guard report was finally issued last month, requiring more crew members on certain boats. But that won't help the thousands of passengers left at the dock when dozens of runs were canceled
this summer.

"I think that all of this was preventable," Ubelhart said.

The state says it will comply with the Coast Guard's new staffing levels, however, it asked for more time to comply with one aspect of it because of specialized training. In the meantime, the ferries say the increased manning set by the Coast Guard last month will cost almost $3 million by 2015.
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