Many responsible for frigate fiasco

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UPDATED: The leader of Norway’s state accident investigations board stressed on Friday that its role is not to place blame on who or what caused one of the Norwegian Navy’s five frigates to crash into a fully loaded tanker last autumn. After releasing their report on the collision, however, it was clear that lots of mistakes were made by everyone involved, with the Norwegian Navy getting the most criticism.

Six members of Norway’s state accident investigation board presented their report Friday on how a Norwegian Navy frigate crashed into a fully laden tanker just north of its home port in Bergen last year. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“We’re not out to go after scapegoats,” William J Bertheussen, director of Statens Havarikommisjon for Transport (SHT), stated at the outset of the board’s presentation of its report Friday, the one-year anniversary of what’s already been a huge and costly embarrassment for the Norwegian defense department. “Our job is to improve maritime safety.” An hour later, when the board’s press conference was over, it was clear that many improvements are needed. The board delivered 15 suggestions for measures that could help prevent such a collision from happening again. Nine of them were directed at the Norwegian Navy alone.

To read through the roughly 200-page report, click here (external link to the board’s website). 

In summary, it was the actions and inaction of Norwegian naval personnel on the bridge of the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad that bore the brunt of the mistakes and “minterpretations” that emerged during the accident investigation. Cooperation among those on the bridge at the time of the collision “did not function,” according to the report. Many of them were inexperienced, several were undergoing training that also apparently distracted the duty officer, and no one was paying attention to the radar. Among those being trained was an American naval officer, the investigators said, who had sailed with the frigate following a large NATO exercise that had just taken place in Norway.

The Norwegian Navy should, according to the state accident investigaton board, “reevaluate training procedures” and several other aspects of its frigate operations, to help prevent this from happening again.  PHOTO: Forsvaret

The accident investigators strongly suggested that the Norwegian Navy “needs to reevaluate its training procedures,” which in this case was underway in darkness at 4am in busy shipping lanes near a major oil terminal. To make matters worse, neither the starboard nor port observation posts on the bridge were crewed at the time of the crash, which occurred during a duty change and just after two crew members had been allowed to take a meal break.

Perhaps the most serious criticism, however, was directed at how the frigate’s automatic identification system (AIS) was set in “passive mode,” meaning that the vessel was not transmitting any signals. That in turn meant that no other vessels in the area were fully aware that a warship was amongst them. That’s reportedly been part of Navy policy and practice for what was Norway’s already small fleet of just just five frigates (now reduced to four, since the Helge Ingstad sank after the collision). The frigates prefer to sail as secretly as possible even, in this case, at relatively high speed in busy merchant shipping lanes just outside Bergen. The accident investigators said they will issue a strong recommendation that the Navy re-evaluate its practice and sail with the frigates’ AIS turned on.

The investigators stated repeatedly that this all contributed towards the duty chief on the frigate’s bridge having a “situation understanding that was not correct.” By the time he realized the frigate was on a collision course with the tanker Sola TS, operated by the major Greek shipping company Tsakos, “it was too late,” they said.

The tanker was leaving a Norwegian oil terminal with deck lights illuminated when its pilot and crew realized that another vessel was heading straight for it. The vessel turned out to be the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad. PHOTO: Havarikommisjonen

The tanker, meanwhile, was sailing out of the oil terminal where it had just loaded an oil cargo with its deck lights on. That’s ordinary practice, the accident investigators noted, but in this case it confused those on the bridge of the frigate. They thought the tanker was a stationary object, not a full-loaded tanker heading straight for the frigate of which the tanker’s crew was unaware. The pilot on board  the tanker, when he finally established communication with the frigate, “could have better identified the tanker,” and both the tanker’s operators and maritime authorities should reconsider use of deck lighting, the board noted.

Otherwise the tanker’s crew did not receive nearly as much criticism as the frigate’s. When one Norwegian reporter asked the investigators whether it was correct that “the biggest mistakes” were not made by the tanker, Kristian Haugnes of the investigation board hesitated and opted to merely repeat that the board “was not looking to place blame.” Summing up the situation on the bridge of the frigate, though, the investigators clearly noted that cooperation among those on the bridge of the frigate was not good enough, that no one on the bridge had a good situation understanding, and that too many on the bridge were inexperienced.

Maritime traffic controller forgot the frigate
Criticism was also directed at the local maritime traffic controllers at the Fedje Vessel Traffic Service (VTS). It had been notified by the frigate’s bridge team that the Helge Ingstad was entering the area, even though the team didn’t activate AIS. The tanker’s crew had also notified Fedje VTS of its departure from the terminal with a load of crude oil. The man on duty at Fedje VTS, however, had not followed the frigate’s passage south through the Hjeltefjord and allegedly forgot it was there. The accident investigators stated on Friday that he “did not give sufficient information” to the vessels and mistakenly thought the two vessels on a collision course would have enough time to swerve and avoid a crash. They did not.

Various other investigations have also been underway following the collision that resulted in a difficult decision to scrap the frigate that had cost Norwegian taxpayers around NOK 5 billion. Police will ultimately be responsible for filing any charges in the case, with the main suspects now being the duty chief on board the frigate, the traffic controller who was on duty at Fedje VTS and the pilot on board the tanker. State broadcaster NRK reported Friday afternoon that police also view the captain of the tanker as a suspect as well and will question him. The captain of the frigate was sleeping at the time of the accident.

Navy responds
Norwegian naval and defense officials called a press conference of their own later Friday afternoon. At it, they agreed that there was “limited” experience on the bridge when the collision occurred and that they would impose a series of measures to prevent that from happening again.

“Now we’re going to work, to systematically address the security and safety advice that the accident investigations board has come up with,” said the chief of the Navy, Nils Andreas Stensønes.

He conceded that there was a need for new selection processes for the duty chief on the bridge, that new training courses would be developed and that AIS practice would be reviewed. AIS should, as a rule, be activated to send out information to other vessels in the area.

The Norwegian classification socient DNV GL has been hired to implement new measures and submit them to quality checks. “I’m responsible for the operation of naval vessels so that they’ll be operated in a secure and responsible manner, ” said Rune Andersen, chief of the Marines. “This accident will change the way we do things.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund