Life rafts for all

If the Steilacoom II goes down in the middle of Admiralty Inlet, it shouldn’t turn into a Titanic scenario with frightened passengers fighting over life rafts.

Unlike other ferry boats in the system, officials say there should be enough space in the inflatable boats for everyone onboard. Owned by Pierce County, the Steilacoom II is one of the smaller boats serving ferry users and it’s been posted on the most dangerous route to fill in until new boats can be built.

The biggest change Washington State Ferries had to make to the 300-person ferry was to add enough life rafts to accommodate all passengers. Now there’s three canisters, each containing two 50-person life rafts.

As Traci Brewer-Rogstad, deputy director for the ferry system, explained, ferry boats run in most other areas of Puget Sound aren’t required to have enough rafts for everyone onboard. That’s unless they are passenger-only boats or travel to Canada.

“They operate closer to shores and in calmer waters,” she said.

In other words, ferry officials don’t think the expense of a plethora of life rafts is necessary on all boats because if there’s a problem on the Clinton or Bainbridge runs, for example, help will be nearby.

That’s not the case in the lengthy and sometimes rough ride between Central Whidbey’s Keystone and Port Townsend docks. Ferry officials concede that passengers may be on their own for a longer time if there’s a maritime disaster on the run.

The issue of the adequacy of life rafts on ferries is periodically highlighted by the media. In 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard proposed rules requiring all passenger vessels operating in inland waters to carry life rafts for all passengers. But under pressure from the ferry system and a lobbying group, the Coast Guard backed down, according to a story by Eric Nalder in the Seattle P-I.

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