A new safety scare has hit ferries to outlying islands: passengers are covering up smoke alarms in toilets on board so they can have a sneaky smoke. Less than a month after 39 people lost their lives in a ferry disaster off Lamma Island, the operator of New World First Ferry Services admitted that it had found cases of passengers lighting up after blocking potentially life-saving smoke detectors. The company was conducting more checks but had also called in the Tobacco Control Office because, it said, it did not have the staff to ensure proper patrols. It could only try to limit the damage, a customer service spokeswoman for First Ferry said. "As our crew members have various duties to perform on board, it is not feasible for them to [keep conducting] spot checks during the entire sailing to identify offenders," she said. "We will continue to press the Tobacco Control Office to perform frequent enforcement action on board the vessels." The operator plies the routes from Central to Cheung Chau and Mui Wo, and from North Point to Hung Hom and Kowloon City. It also runs the inter-island service serving Peng Chau, Mui Wo, Chi Ma Wan and Cheung Chau. It issued the statement in response to a complaint from an eagle-eyed Cheung Chau resident who spotted during his daily journeys to Central and back that smoke alarms in the ferry toilets were regularly covered. Hans Wergin, who works on Hong Kong Island as a chef for a chain of coffee shops, noticed passengers would come out of the toilets holding a lit cigarette but that the alarm inside the cubicle had not gone off. On closer inspection, he found the detectors had been covered with paper to prevent the smoke from setting it off. He reported his finding to First Ferry's customer service division - and was told that it was an ongoing problem. "It took First Ferry 17 days to get back to me on such a basic but important safety enquiry," Wergin said. The spokeswoman said First Ferry could only remind their crew members to carry out more frequent inspections and to ensure all smoke detectors were not obstructed when possible.