April 08, 2010

White Noise

I am of the opinion that the vastly improved communication at sea today results too often in situations where the same communication is actually detrimental to the safety of crews and ships. GMDSS requirements have resulted in superior communications at the Master’s disposal, no doubt. This enhances safety of life at sea, but much what it gives with one hand it often takes away with another.

Not all that long ago, I was on a smallish Ro Ro vessel that blew a fuel line approaching the Western boarding ground (Sultan Shoal) pilot station in Singapore. With engine movements restricted to ‘Slow’ at best, I turned her around, cancelled the pilot and got permission from the port to anchor clear of the other ships and the TSS for repairs. Still underway to the anchorage in thick traffic and strongish winds that made the breadbox of a Ro Ro drift like a balloon at slow speed, I called the agents at Singapore and the Ship Superintendent to inform them of the fact that we were now delayed. That second call was a mistake and should have been made after anchoring, except that the company’s standing instructions were ‘inform asap and within half an hour’.

As it happens too often nowadays, the Superintendent first went into backseat repair mode, wanting to talk to the Chief Engineer immediately. He wasn’t too pleased when I politely insisted that I wanted the Chief in the Engine Room until we finished anchoring, because the engine needed to be nursed and he was the best guy to do it. The Superintendent then asked me to make a full report immediately on Inmarsat C telex. The conversation kind of stopped when I told him that if I did that, then I would in all probability have to make another report soon thereafter since there would likely be an accident in those congested waters because I was making reports instead of maneuvering the said breadbox.

Any Chief Engineer or Master will tell you that calls and messages to and from the office during any breakdown or immediately after an accident usually accomplish farcical dimensions very quickly. Besides back seat driving, shore office personnel often seem to want to be informed of developments even before they occur; this results in the Chief Engineer rushing from Engine Room to the Wheelhouse periodically to ‘update’ the office on the phone, with the office often pushing for alternate fault finding ways to what the Chief is doing. Sometimes Superintendents will ask the Master to update them instead, because they think that the guy is hanging around the bridge doing nothing anyway. This is slightly better, because now the Chief is only running up to the Engine Control Room from the place of work instead of to the bridge. Nevertheless, the amount of energy and time wasted in this exercise is something every sailor is aware of; my additional point is that this distraction is actually detrimental to safety and efficiency. If this distraction occurs in an ongoing emergency, as it often does, it may even be dangerous.

Another short story. With terrible weather and consequent damage on a just taken over old (and, in the Lloyd’s surveyors opinion, unsuitable) Ro Ro vessel in the North Atlantic in winter, we discovered almost all side doors and stern ramp leaking slightly. In addition, the stern ramp seemed to have a considerable play at the hinges and was ‘moving’ up and down and sideways a bit. After lashing and otherwise securing the ramp to try to stop this movement, and with the sea still battering us, I called the office to see if they could talk to the manufacturers and get an opinion on how unsafe this was (since I could not see the hinges from inside the ship I could not rule out the possibility that one may have given way) and if there was anything else (we thought maybe welding from inside) we should do.

My query was brushed aside with the clear implication that I was overreacting. (Incidentally, at that point, I had command of approximately fifteen Ro Ro ships and car carriers under my belt; I certainly knew more about ramps and side doors and their watertight integrity than the jokers sitting in the office brushing me off did).

Therefore this opinion: If the driving imperative of many managements is to minimise costs, cover themselves against criticism by owners later and minimise their liability in any situation, then much communication will logically be not only useless, but also often counterproductive. It takes up time and space and achieves nothing, like hot air. A Master or Chief Engineer does not always have time for these games.

Even under normal circumstances, the amount of time spent on replying to emails, making reports and managing normal MIS paperwork has reached farcical proportions at sea. A Master or Chief Engineer does not sit peacefully at his desk replying to emails; most of the ships I have sailed on have not had computers networked, and indeed many don’t even have enough computers or photocopiers for the load that is dumped on ship staff, not to speak of the fact that nobody trained is available for troubleshooting of systems or their administration. Then an officer has to usually collect files (which may be a deck or three below) and carry them to the radio room or bridge to compile any email. It takes time and energy. It takes longer if the seafarer is fatigued or the ship is rolling and pitching in bad weather. It annoys people on board. It annoys them more when they know that the value of the email they will send to the organisation is almost zilch.

I daresay that at least half of the communication to the office serves no real purpose except that ‘it is an ISM requirement’, which indicates clearly to me that the tail is once again wagging the dog. Adding to the already staggering amount of ISM, ISPS, MIS, PMS and port related paperwork, this additionally and unnecessary communication overload can result in many officers paying alarmingly little attention to their real jobs. Safety of navigation, deck and engine room machinery maintenance and the upkeep of LSA and FFA equipment are just a few of the critical tasks that tend to suffer. It is not just senior officers that are involved; when an office paper tiger wants something immediately, a quarter of the crew may be collating stuff to get it to him.

Then there are the mobile phones. Especially on ships on short sea trades, the practice of giving the Master a mobile phone (or, once, two. I threatened to dump them over the side, but that’s another story) and then expecting a response from him twenty four hours a day on matters related to cargo, ETAs, crew changes, stores, bunkers et al contributes immensely to his fatigue and is hugely detrimental to basic safety. It is common to have, in short stays in places like Singapore, a half dozen delivery drivers or such calling up the Master to ‘ask the crew to come down and receive stores’. Managements and agents encourage this practice; one that makes my blood boil. I have had major skirmishes with people over this; and I will often, despite senior managers asking me not to, simply switch off the phone.

There is, behind all this, the mentality of many ashore- from the lowest clerk to the highest CEO- that assumes that the Master, Chief Engineer and all on board are at the beck and call of everybody and their mother in laws ashore. Consider this: If a Master needs to calls a superintendent on an urgent matter, it is routine for him to consider time zones and delay the call if possible. Even during the daytime, a message that ‘the Superintendent is in a meeting’ is not too unusual when he calls, despite the fact that the guy may be just shooting the breeze over a cup of coffee with a colleague. However, reverse the situation and you can have some interesting anecdotes to tell: an incident with a Superintendent who was told by the Second Mate that the Master was sleeping after a few days in fog and would call him back had, shall we say, exciting repercussions.

I suggest that managements look long and hard at this problem, and realise that their behaviour sometimes contributes to an unsafe environment on their fleets; in their place, I would be much more concerned about this than they seem to be. I would be seriously thinking of having all office communications to the ship – emails or phones or snail mail- going through one DPA level manager who would sift the useless stuff out. In addition, I would schedule an annual paper audit with the clear intention of simplifying MIS systems and slashing duplication, rubbish emails and other paper garbage.

In my view, too many ships are on the verge of paralysis by communication today, and too many crews are fatigued partly because of this overload. Too many ships are consequently less safe because of the ‘when in doubt, communicate’ culture that is making data entry clerks out of our seamen. We need to stop this now, because after a certain point that we breached long ago, communication detracts from safety instead of adding to it. It is then just white noise.