The long-awaited independent review of Steamship Authority management and operations was made public this morning. The 140-page report by maritime specialists HMS Consulting of Seattle describes an organization committed to service, but so focused on saving money and reacting to emergencies that it has failed to follow basic business practices.

“Decisions are uninformed, avoidable incidents occur, employees work toward different goals, and opportunities are missed,” because the boat line has no “clear strategic vision,” according to the report.

SSA governors will hold a special public meeting today to discuss the report, beginning at 3:45 p.m. in the auditorium at Falmouth High School. The report was presented to the to the governors with a four-page staff summary written by general manager Robert B. Davis, which makes little effort to summarize the report’s most critical findings. Instead, it outlines a series of actions the boat line has taken that he says show “significant progress” in addressing issues raised by the report.

Commissioned in June by the boat line governors who were under public pressure following a series of operational failures this past spring, the report has been five months in the making at a cost of $217,976. Consultants focused on four subject areas: fleet maintenance, vessel operations, management structure and IT systems. (A supplemental report on communications is slated to come later.)

Ferry breakdowns, service delays and reservation snafus were tracked in whole or part to human error, including lack of crew training and no clear internal chain of command, the report found. And while boat line leaders have said repeatedly that the problems were a one-time “perfect storm” of circumstances, consultants reached a different conclusion. “From our experience, this could not be further from the truth,” they wrote.

The March 15 grounding of the ferry Woods Hole was avoidable, consultants found.

They identified 21 issues that were at the root of the March 17 blackout on the ferry Martha’s Vineyard. “The net result of all of these issues was an unsafe condition on the vessel that led to the incident. While the blackout did not result in any serious casualties, had it occurred minutes later, while the vessel was maneuvering into the dock, the consequences could have been dire,” it said.

The HMS report also calls out the boat line board of governors and management for:

• Lack of accountability: “Underperformance is being tolerated because the SSA lacks a system to adequately measure employee performance and the resolve to address obvious underperformers. SSA managers demonstrated the tendency to place blame for vessel incidents on individual crew members, rather than taking responsibility for the tools or systems they lack but require in order to succeed.”

• Lack of training: “This review of the SSA’s management identified serious shortcomings in crew operational training, and observed circumstances where new crew members were put on watch with little or no training.”

• Lack of recognition of the need for training: “The experience of the crew was considered a substitute for risk identification and training.”

• Lack of communication: “Crew understood a lack of training existed but there was no formal means of reporting and tracking these observations to management.”

• Lack of a project plan for ferry repairs: When the Island Home went in for its ill-fated repair work at a Rhode Island shipyard, the SSA “did not take proper steps to coordinate with contractors and define responsibilities, scope of work and project schedule.”

• Lack of planning for emergencies: “The SSA does not have a consolidated reference containing procedures for responding to emergencies on board the vessels or at the terminals. This includes a lack of plans for management response, including coordination of repair activities, public communications, and scheduling contingencies.”

The report details inefficient or outmoded internal systems, including the website and reservations system, which it says are at risk with a single point of failure with no modern backup in place. The only pilot training manual dates to 1997 and is rarely used, the report found.

It details inconsistencies across the fleet of SSA ferries, which all have different marine operating systems, creating a steep learning curve for crew training and posing obstacles for senior engineers and operations managers.

The boat line also suffers from what the report calls a pervasive hero culture in the management ranks. “The SSA is over reliant on a small number of individuals who hold inordinate amounts of knowledge and power, resulting in an executive team that is stuck in a perpetual mode of day-to-day firefighting,” it says.

The report makes a detailed set of recommendations, including restructuring management with more strategic hiring to help spread both the workload and the institutional knowledge that currently resides chiefly with longtime employees. The estimated cost to adopt the recommendations would be $1 million at the start and another $1 million built into the annual operating budget, currently $100 million. The bulk of the cost would be for a strategic plan which consultants said is urgently needed.

While the HMS report comes down hard on the boat line board of governors and management for failing to establish best practices, it also salutes the Steamship Authority for operating since 1963 without taxpayer support or government subsidies.

“For a service that is mandated by legislation to provide critical services to the public, to not receive sizable financial support is extremely unique in the industry. Few public ferry services in the US, and globally for that matter, are able to achieve similar success while providing a quality service. This is an impressive accomplishment that is not fully understood or appreciated by the public they serve.”

HMS also acknowledges: “While public backlash was justified by the series of incidents in early 2018, it wasn’t due to a lack of commitment by the employees of the SSA to provide reliable service. This is deeply ingrained in the SSA’s culture. The problems in the spring of 2018 were despite this commitment to service.”

Transportation is being provided to the Falmouth meeting today for Islanders. People arriving in Woods Hole on the 2:30 p.m. ferry can take a designated Steamship Authority shuttle bus to the high school. Return buses will be available from the high school to Woods Hole for ferries leaving at 6:15, 7:15 or later, should the meeting run longer than expected, the boat line said.

The full report:
Consulting Report on SSA Management and Operations

Report to the board by general manager Robert Davis:
General manager staff summary