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Lamma ferry crash

New radar technology to boost Hong Kong boat safety

Four years after Lamma ferry disaster, Marine Department widens scope of its trackers’ coverage in Hong Kong waters to 10,000 vessels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 10:52pm

The Marine Department has updated vessel-tracking technology to improve safety in the harbour four years after the Lamma ferry disaster in a move which experts have decried as too little too late.

The recent reform work made to the department’s vessel traffic system announced on Thursday widens the scope of its coverage to 10,000 marine targets, meaning ferries the size of the one that sank on National Day in 2012 can now come under their radars, according to a consultant.

With thirteen radars now scouring the waters, where traffic never stops, smaller vessels can be picked up where previously they went undetected, in a move which officials at the department say is in keeping with evolving international standards.

“The marine department has been undertaking reforms since 2013,” said department director Maisie Cheung, listing an enhanced survey of local vessels, enhancing look-out duties for crew, and strengthening training among the measures taken.

A decade of malaise contributed to the deaths of 39 people in Lamma ferry disaster, families say

But detractors said progress in safety after the disaster – which killed 39 when the Lamma IV sank after colliding with Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry’s Sea Smooth – has been inexcusably slow.

“It seems like [the marine department] don’t know what they’re doing,” said Alex Wong, director of marine consultancy firm Axon Consulting, who has worked in the business for ten years. “Progress has been very, very slow, and the department don’t have enough staff to track the system.”

The ferry disaster was Hong Kong’s deadliest boat accident in the last 40 years, plunging 100 passengers into the waters. A damning ombudsman report last month revealed failures on the part of the department to conduct proper follow-up work on marine accident investigations over the decade leading up the to the disaster.

Earlier this year a senior ship inspector, Wong Kam-ching, working for the Marine Department, was found guilty of perjury for telling a 2013 inquiry into the crash that he had been satisfied with the number of children’s life jackets aboard the Lamma IV when he had inspected it six months before the accident. No such vests had been on board.

And last month a senior Marine Department official was jailed for 16 months for instructing his subordinates to flout rules on the number of children’s life jackets boats were required to carry, also before the crash.

Eight children perished on the ferry, the youngest being a three-year-old boy.

Pledging that reforms will continue, department officials said on Thursday that they were improving the department’s governance and work culture.

They added that a law controlling drunk sailing was in the pipeline, among other legislative changes.

But staffing problems the department profess to be experiencing might stimy efforts to improve safety measures, with a 20 per cent decline in manpower predicted in the coming years.

Scrambling to fill places for marine officers and ship surveyors, the department said that young people the world over were not as keen as before to have a career in the marine industry. They have been considering re-recruiting retired staff to help manage the shortfall.