Mayday Calls

Mayday! No one's listening to calls for help

Vital Lady Duck inquest recommendations have fallen on deaf ears, experts fear

Jean-Franois Bertrand, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, August 18, 2007, Page E1

One year after an inquest into the 2002 sinking of the Lady Duck amphibious tour boat that killed four people, boating safety experts are concerned that one recommendation in particular is not being followed -- no one is monitoring the marine channel reserved for emergency calls.

A year ago last Thursday, coroner Catherine Rudel-Tessier issued nine recommendations stemming from a lengthy Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigation into the sinking of the converted pickup truck. To date, only six of those recommendations have been followed.

There is still a lack of written safety information on the Lady Dive, the Amphibus Lady Dive Inc.'s remaining amphibious tour boat, and Gatineau and Ottawa fire services still can't communicate with each other over the radio. But the most pressing outstanding recommendation is the fact that Gatineau officials aren't monitoring Channel 16. (Officials on the Ottawa side of the river aren't monitoring it either, but the coroner's recommendation only covered Gatineau.) On marine radios, that VHF channel is reserved to report any emergency calls that start with, "Mayday!" Transport Canada regulations require any boater to respond to an emergency call sent out over Channel 16 and render assistance. So right now, if a boat on the river experiences difficulties, the occupants must call for help on a cellphone or rely on fellow boaters to either help out or call for help.

Andr Bonneau, director of the Gatineau fire service, said the emergency channel falls under the 911 service, which is managed by Gatineau Police. But Capt. Roger Cloutier said Channel 16 is not monitored by the police. (Involved in security planning for the Montebello summit, Capt. Cloutier could not offer an explanation for why that is last night.) The coast guard doesn't patrol the Ottawa River upstream of the Carillon lock, near Hawkesbury. Parks Canada, which operates the locks, has posted signs notifying boaters that in cases of emergency, they should call 911 from a cellphone.

"But who knows which tower, in Ontario or in Quebec, will pick up a 911 call?" asks Pat Drummond, who owns the country's most extensive boating safety website.

She added that most boat owners have a marine radio on board, and that the licence to use it involves a two-evening course. Trained radio operators know when, and how, to use the emergency channel.

Fred Herndorf, a former naval officer, is the executive officer at the Britannia chapter of the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons, a national non-profit organization involved in boating safety and training.

While he is concerned that Channel 16 is not monitored, he finds it totally ridiculous "that we don't look at this area, Ottawa and Gatineau, as one, when it comes to safety and rescue." The coroner recommended that Gatineau and Ottawa fire services be able to talk to each other via radio.

Five years after the Lady Duck sank, this still cannot be done.

Gatineau recently purchased a new radio system for its fire and police services, but there is still a missing communication link that would allow a scene commander from Gatineau to talk directly to his Ottawa equivalent.

According to Mr. Bonneau, this issue should be resolved in the coming months.

Unlike when the Lady Duck took in water, there are now common emergency protocols and operating procedures in place to ensure that firefighters from Gatineau and Ottawa work together in rescues.

The chief of special operations at Ottawa's fire service, Kim Ayotte, explained that when Gatineau calls, an Ottawa district chief is dispatched to Quebec to be next to their incident commander.

Mr. Bonneau also explained that if Ottawa fire dispatches two boats to the river, Gatineau will bring one out, and conversely when Gatineau sends two rescue boats.

While joint operations now exist as the coroner recommended, safety advocates say a joint regional boating safety committee lacks formality.

Both Mr. Ayotte and Mr. Bonneau confirmed that the committee exists and met in the spring, but neither could provide minutes or a detailed list of participants.

"We need formal regional meetings to work out who, between Gatineau police and Ottawa police, covers whom during the patrols on the river," said Mr. Herndorf of the Britannia Power and Sail squadron. He added that not only should a committee keep minutes, but these should be publicized through newsletters in marinas and with dealers.

Ms. Drummond, who runs boating.ncf.ca, said she was "surprised that with two sides having people responsible with saving lives, there's not more co-ordination through a regional committee." The coroner addressed four recommendations to the Amphibus Lady Dive Inc. corporation.

The amphibious vehicle operator was to ensure that tour guides clearly demonstrate how to use a life jacket and the location of emergency exits.

Yesterday, on the 10:45 a.m. Lady Dive tour, guide Alister Akira-Auger did exactly that.

The amphibious vehicle came to a full stop, just before entering the water. It did not move again until Mr. Akira-Auger had completed his instructions, including how to escape through the windows.

The coroner also recommended that the captain of the boat know the vessel inside out. Pietro Urbisci, one of the two captains of the Lady Dive III, explained that he holds a Master's Limited licence, a restricted Engineer's Licence and Marine Emergency Duties certification, all issued by Transport Canada.

The company, however, deliberately ignored one of the coroner's recommendations.

Ms. Rudel-Tessier had suggested -- and her recommendations are not binding -- that passengers receive a leaflet with safety instructions, similar to those found on airplanes.

"I don't think our clients would read it," said Denise Frappier of Amphibus Lady Dive. She added passengers pay close attention to the safety speech and that a visual demonstration was better.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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