Ferries, fire district find fix for rare but serious issue

The new accommodation is “a win for the health and safety of Vashon.”

In response to an appeal made by Vashon Fire Chief Matt Vinci, Washington State Ferries (WSF) has sought and received an accommodation from the US Coast Guard that allows vessel crewing to be reduced when overnight boats, docked at Southworth, lack enough crew to respond to emergency situations on Vashon.

According to WSF, the problem has occurred only five times on the Triangle route in 2023.

But in October, it happened three times — Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13-14, and then again on Saturday, Oct. 21, when 1:05 a.m. sailings from the Fauntleroy dock were canceled due to lack of crew, according to Vinci.

Typically, the 1:05 a.m. sailing from Fauntleroy proceeds to Vashon and then Southworth, where the boat docks with a full crew — making it possible to return to Vashon in the middle of the night, if needed, to provide transport for island patients to mainland hospitals.

The vessel is also available to return to Seattle in those wee hours of the morning to board vehicles and personnel from neighboring fire departments in the case of a major incident requiring mutual aid on Vashon.

But in the five instances this year when the 1:05 sailing was canceled due to lack of crew, those public safety options didn’t exist, Vinci said — meaning that the only exit off the island prior to the first 4:40 a.m. Vashon sailing was via helicopter.

However, the option of airlift, Vinci said, is only available if flying conditions permit, and is reserved for critically ill or injured patients receiving advanced life support transport. Basic life support patients — those with injuries and illnesses that are still serious but not immediately life-threatening — don’t qualify for airlift.

Still, Vinci said, those patients do need to receive medical treatment as soon as possible. The new accommodation by the Coast Guard, said Vinci, is “a win for the health and safety of Vashon” — and a fix to a problem he had urged WSF to immediately address.

In a Nov. 3 interview on Zoom, Vinci and WSF Communications and External Relations Manager Hadley Rodero detailed the specifics of the Coast Guard’s accommodation, saying that WSF captains are now allowed to pilot emergency sailings with reduced crewing of one master, two able seamen, one ordinary seaman, one chief engineer, and one licensed engineer or oiler.

The accommodation allows only three vehicles to board vessels in these types of emergency sailings; these can include an ambulance and a “follow” vehicle for family members accompanying the patient to a Seattle hospital.

In the interview, Rodero emphasized the rarity of the need for this type of emergency sailing.

“We keep hearing from the community that Vashon is stranded — that this is a life safety issue … and really, most of the nights this entire year [a vessel] has been fully crewed and available to provide 24 hour/7 days a week access to Vashon,” she said. “There have been a few nights when we’ve let Vashon Fire & Rescue know we didn’t have the crew to have that boat available — so this solution eliminates even that rare occurrence.”

Vinci, for his part, expressed gratitude that WSF had addressed the problem, saying that it guarantees that VIFR can provide emergency transport to islanders 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He said he was eager to continue to partner with WSF and had invited Rodero and her team members to meet in person with VIFR’s staff to discuss general operations. Additionally, he said, he hoped to soon hold joint training sessions with VIFR first responders and WSF terminal staff on how to respond to medical emergencies on the dock.

Rodero said WSF had been and would continue to work with island agencies to mitigate issues posed by the two-boat service on the Triangle route, which began at the dawn of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and is still in effect.

On Sept. 29, KING 5 reported that the 7:40 a.m. ferry from Fauntleroy dock was running late 60% of the time — a serious problem for commuter students from the mainland who were missing breakfast and part of the first period of school at McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School.

Now, according to Rodero and Superintendent Slade McSheehy, that problem has been largely mitigated as well.

In an email, McSheehy said commuter students are now instructed to arrive at the Fauntleroy dock by 7:15 a.m. on Monday-Thursday, allowing them to catch an earlier 7:25 boat — a vessel not on the public schedule because it sometimes carries hazmat materials, though most typically on Thursdays.

On Fridays, McSheehy said, both McMurray and Vashon High School have a later start time, so no change for students was needed on that day.

“The hazmat boat does come more consistently on Thursdays, but not always so,” McSheehy said. “On the days when there isn’t a hazmat on Thursday, we can get kids on [the 7:15 boat] as well,” McSheehy said, adding that so far, the change has resulted in students arriving at school on time and also, participating in the district’s breakfast program.

“[Rodero] and WSF have been very responsive and we will be checking in more as we turn the corner on the new year and planning for the restoration of [three-boat service],” McSheehy said.

Rodero, in her interview with The Beachcomber, said that WSF had also made internal changes to ensure a more reliable departure time for the 7:40 boat if students are not able to catch the 7:25 boat.

“We’re fully aware that the two-boat service we’re providing now is really frustrating for people on Vashon, and causes some inconvenience,” she said. WSF’s partnerships with VIFR, the school district, and Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee are good examples, she added, of “how we’re trying to do the best we can with the resources we can provide.”

But when asked if WSF still plans to begin trials for three-boat service to resume on the Triangle Route in the spring of 2024, Rodero didn’t say yes.

“We’re working on an updated contingency plan right now that we’re going to be releasing by the end of the year, based on new crewing and the new outlook for vessel availability,” she said.

WSF’s crewing challenges will take time to fix, she said, although she pointed to new funding and programs that will boost staffing in coming months and years.

But she also referenced another setback for WSF’s aging fleet, which now has only 14 of its 21 boats in service.

The latest boat to go out of service, on Oct. 28, was the Chimacum, the sole boat serving the Bremerton/Seattle route, after the vessel had engine problems on Oct. 28.

WSF’s solution to that problem was to reduce the number of boats on the Kingston/Edmonds route, which had formerly been fully restored — sending one of its two boats to replace the Chimacum. This, she pointed out, was a step backward for the formerly fully restored Kingston/Edmonds route.

In terms of the Triangle route, Rodero said that WSF was still committed to running a third, unscheduled boat on the route whenever crewing allowed.

For Vinci, WSF’s and the Coast Guard’s action to solve the issue related to overnight boats was welcome — but he also said VIFR’s emergency response is still heavily impacted by WSF service disruptions.

“We still have our ambulances and crew sitting on the Fauntleroy dock, waiting to get back to the island, due to the gap in the schedule and the lack of a third boat, or even a second boat at times,” he said.