Tech upgrades enhance county ferry operation

Pierce County officials announced today an assortment of technology upgrades to the county’s ferry system could improve safety and security, increase information for riders and better manage operating costs. The new systems added this year include Global Position System (GPS) tracking, vessel identification, security cameras, mechanical sensors, ticketing, and customer service technologies.

The GPS tracking system on the Christine Anderson reports its location once every minute. This information is available on the Internet and on new reader boards at the terminals, enabling customers to see if the ferry is running on schedule. It also records data automatically in the captain’s log.

Fourteen cameras have been installed around the ferry docks, and two of the cameras allow passengers to go online and see vehicle queuing lanes at the Steilacoom and Anderson Island terminals.

State-of-the-art software links to the ferry’s radar system and identifies ships in the area, their projected courses and any potential conflicts with the ferry’s route. It also identifies vessels carrying hazardous materials.

Other upgrades aim to prevent ferry breakdowns in some circumstances. A modified version of an automated maintenance system used by Public Works and Utilities alerts the ship’s engineer to daily maintenance requirements, the parts required and how long the tasks will take. In addition, a series of 56 new sensors, similar to the warning lights found on a car’s dashboard, will alert the captain of malfunctions in any of the ferry’s vital systems.

Ticketing improvements for Steilacoom High School students from Anderson Island are in progress. The paper tickets given out by their school district often go unused because they are lost or destroyed in the bottom of backpacks, requiring the ferry to issue emergency replacement tickets and making the students late to school. The county is testing replacing paper tickets with a bar code added to the student’s photo ID to resolve the problem.

The total cost of the upgrades was about $104,000. A federal Homeland Security grant paid for $60,000 and the remaining $44,000 came from the Pierce County Public Works and Utilities ferry budget. The ferry system carries about 200,000 riders a year from Steilacoom to Anderson and Ketron islands.