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Not a drill

A mock disaster exercise that turned into the real thing has resulted in a new level of co-operation between Marine Atlantic –  the company that runs passenger ferries between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – and volunteer firefighters at ports in both provinces.

June 5, 2008 
By Robert Lynch

Volunteer firefighters in Port aux Basques have been running drills with Marine Atlantic after a mock disaster exercise in September turned into a real marine rescue.

A mock disaster exercise that turned into the real thing has resulted in a new level of co-operation between Marine Atlantic –  the company that runs passenger ferries between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland – and volunteer firefighters at ports in both provinces.

The mock disaster exercise, known as Ocean Guardian III, took place in the Bay of Islands on the west coast of Newfoundland and Labrador on Sept. 27. The exercise was a test of the Halifax Search and Rescue region’s major maritime disaster plan. By noon, the simulation had turned into a real emergency that sent 21 people to hospital. 

Things were going according to plan when a call came over the radios: “No-duff, no-duff, no-duff; all call signs other than no-duff please remain of the air.” This was code for “No kidding, no more make believe” and the exercise quickly changed from a mock disaster to a major problem with real injuries and a real rescue required. 

The mock scenario – an explosion/fire aboard the Ocean Guardian III, which was standing in for Marine Atlantic’s MV Lief Ericson, one of its ferries that travels between Port aux Basque and North Sydney, N.S.–  involved about 400 people and was in the works for more than a year. The exercise was halted around noon when 21 people aboard a lifeboat were overcome by what the coast guard first reported as smoke but was later confirmed to be acrid fumes from engine exhaust. 


All 21 victims were all taken aboard the Canadian search and rescue ship Sir Wilfred Grenfell and triaged. Two were airlifted by a Cormorant helicopter, one was not injured and the remainder were as taken by an RCMP vessel to port or by the coast guard lifeboat, Cape Norman, to a marina at nearby Allen’s Cove. Awaiting ambulances transported all those requiring further medical treatment to Western Memorial Regional Hospital in Corner Brook.

At 12:40 p.m., Western Regional instituted its code orange to respond to the real emergency. In implementing code orange – a response to a mass-casualty incident – all elective surgeries at the hospital were cancelled for the rest of the day. As of 5:30 p.m., 11 of the patients from the mock disaster had been discharged from Western Memorial but three patients were transferred by air to Eastern Health at The Health Science Complex in St. John’s for further medical treatment.

“Two are listed in stable condition and the third is listed in serious, but stable condition,” Dr. Brent Thistle, head of emergency, said during a briefing. “Those people were transferred into St. John’s to be looked at for treatment in the hyperbaric chamber. Smoke inhalation is our main concern, and carbon monoxide poisoning.”

In March, Transport Canada released its report on the incident.

“Transport Canada relied on data provided by health-care professionals who responded after the incident. It became evident to us that some of the participants in the exercise were exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide,” said Transport Canada regional communications director Maurice Landry.

“The most likely cause of the incident is what is called drafting, [which] caused the exhaust to be sucked into the open back hatch of the lifeboat. It's an enclosed lifeboat and the back hatch was open, much like a vacuum.”

Transport Canada made six recommendations:

When operating totally enclosed lifeboats all hatches should remain closed;
Lifeboats should be provided with atmospheric monitors to indicate high levels of airborne hazards;
Operating crews should be trained in the hazards associated with airborne hazards and the steps to be taken to eliminate them;
Operating crews should be trained in their duties and responsibilities when carrying personnel other than required boat crew;
Operating crews should be trained in the hazards associated with operation of fully enclosed lifeboats;
A risk assessment be completed to assess known and foreseeable hazards associated with totally enclosed lifeboats.

Marine Atlantic will not face any charges and the Crown corporation has voluntarily acted on all the recommendations.

“Within days of the actual incident that occurred, we had already begun to act on what we thought was happening based on our own internal investigation,” Marine Atlantic spokesperson Tara Laing said in March. “By the time we received this report we had actually implemented all the measures necessary to meet these recommendations.”

Laing said in an e-mail interview that as a result of the mock disaster, Marine Atlantic has developed a greater understanding of all the players who would respond to an incident involving one of the company’s vessels and the roles each would play.

“Being involved in exercise enabled us to begin to develop a relationship with some of these individuals and strengthen our relationships,” she said.

Marine Atlantic has its emergency response plan in place and conducts regular training exercises to respond to emergencies but this was the first time it participated in an exercise of this magnitude.

Laing said the exercise confirmed that its training and regular drills have prepared it to respond to an emergency. The exercise also identified some areas for improvement, including working with fire departments in North Sydney and Port aux Basques.

“The volunteer fire departments in our ports of call will be a key part a response to a fire on a vessel should the vessel be in port,” Laing said.

Both the North Sydney Fire Rescue and the Port aux Basques Fire Department had toured Marine Atlantic’s passenger ferries in the past to become familiar with the layout of the vessels. Since the Ocean Guardian III incident, however,  the departments have been doing their own mock disasters and scenarios on board the ferries and have agreed to conduct training exercises onboard each of Marine Atlantic’s three vessels annually. Both departments have already conducted exercises that included a full response by their members and equipment.

Jerry Musseau, assistant chief with Port aux Basques Fire Department, said recent mock fire drills on all three Marine Atlantic ferries were successful.

“It demonstrated training and co-operation from both sides and the knowledge that we are both ready for the challenges should a real emergency occur,” he said.

Lloyd Macintosh, chief of the North Sydney Fire/Rescue, agrees.

“Marine Atlantic and North Sydney Fire/Rescue have always maintained a close working relationship. The training exercise organized by Marine Atlantic was a logical extension of this relationship.

“Our personnel need to be familiar with Marine Atlantic and their operations both on shore and on vessels. These training sessions will further enhance our awareness of their operation and what support North Sydney Fire/ Rescue can offer to Marine Atlantic and of course, vice versa.”

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