Safe Passage

Published Apr 6, 2014 11:13 PM by Jim Romeo

In January 2012 the Costa Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan coast in Italy with 4,252 passengers and crew onboard. Thirty-two of them died – twice the total of fatalities between 2005 and 2010.  

In February of 2013, an engine room fire broke out aboard the Carnival Triumph off  the coast of Mexico, leaving the ship and its approximately 4,000 passengers and crew stranded and adrift for five days until tugs could bring the vessel into port. Investigative reports by news agencies later stated that crew members and the company itself were aware of the risk before the vessel set sail. And just two years earlier, the Carnival Splendor had a similar engine room fire.    

Passenger safety and security are at the forefront of the cruise industry these days, and for good reason. According to the website Cruisejunkie.com, 18 crew and passengers went overboard in 2013, 24 in 2012, and 23 in 2011. The site also reports that 66 cruise and ferry vessels have run aground since 2005 and 55 vessels, large and small, have actually sunk between 1979 and 2013.  

Rules & Regulations 

In the beginning it was crime on the high seas that first caught the public’s eye and caused Congress to pass the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010. The act mandates the reporting of crimes such as kidnappings and sexual assaults on a cruise line’s website and also mandates surveillance of passenger cabins via peepholes and video systems, in addition to other measures. The legislation has worked. Companies have complied, and incidents are down. Now the focus is on mechanical breakdowns and human error like that which caused the Concordia grounding.   

According to industry statistics, there are approximately 310 overnight ocean-going cruise vessels worldwide. The average vessel carries 2,000 passengers and a crew of 950. In 2013, cruise ships carried more than 21 million passengers – triple the number they carried in 2000. The trend toward building monster ships that can carry upwards of 6,000 passengers and 2,000 crew, combined with ongoing changes to safety legislation and the requirement for vessels to operate safely in all conditions, has created daunting challenges for both vessel owners and the manufacturers and suppliers of life-saving equipment. 

Regulatory bodies and regulations are found at the international, domestic and local levels. They include such groups as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.S. Coast Guard and even the FBI as well as laws and conventions like the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), and the Maritime Transportation Security Act enforced by the Department of Homeland Security. 

The IMO is an international regulatory body with 170 Member States, including the U.S. It develops and oversees global regulations and standards for the entire maritime industry, including the safety and operation of cruise ships. The IMO’s Member State governments develop uniform global safety standards, which are constantly being reviewed and strengthened. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is one of them, and it applies to commercial vessels of all kinds. SOLAS provides comprehensive mandates on safety equipment and procedures.  

However, individual flag states where a cruise ship is registered have the primary responsibility for ensuring that their ships meet all applicable regulatory requirements and standards. When calling on different ports, cruise ships are further subject to the rules and regulations of that country and are regularly boarded by authorities to ensure compliance. In the U.S., that responsibility falls to the Coast Guard.  

Last year the IMO implemented additional safety-related policies adopted from the cruise industry’s 2012 Global Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review. The Review, which was sponsored by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) in response to the Costa Concordia disaster, entailed a comprehensive assessment of the critical human factors and operational aspects of maritime safety. The ten new IMO policies included such matters as Passenger Musters, Personnel Access to the Bridge, Common Elements of Musters and Emergency Instructions, Lifeboat Loading for Training Purposes, and the Securing of Heavy Objects. CLIA stated that the new policies exceeded all current international regulatory requirements and were evidence of the industry’s willingness to go the extra mile.  

Equipment & Training

Nonetheless, disasters like the Costa Concordia shine a hard light on training, safety procedures and the performance of safety equipment, says Mark Barker, Group Marine Sales Director for UK-based Survitec Group. “From our perspective, improving evacuation safety is one of the major priorities right now,” he states. “As cruise ships increase in size, mass evacuation at speed and in complete safety is even more critical. For this reason, marine evacuation systems (MES) are increasingly being seen as a viable alternative to lifeboats, which have been the default evacuation system for over a century.” 

MESs are inflatable chutes, slides and liferafts that can be stored compactly and deployed rapidly in case of emergency. They offer vastly increased evacuation capacity and simpler, safer launch procedures, features that make them very attractive to today’s cruise operators. In addition, MESs maximize the return on commercial deck space: “It takes many lifeboat installations to support the requirements of larger cruise ships carrying 4,000+ passengers compared to the installation of a MES system,” Barker explains. “Indeed, a single Survitec RFD Marin Ark 2 system can be configured to evacuate 860 passengers in less than 30 minutes.” 

Inflatable technologies help the operators of increasingly mega-sized cruise ships achieve compliance with mandated passenger evacuation times. For example, Survitec has developed an innovative remote liferaft launch feature for the SurvitecZodiac MIS (Medium Inflatable Slide) Escape Slide System that enables a second liferaft to be remotely launched after the double-track escape slide has been deployed and the first 150-person life-raft has been automatically inflated. The development of a remote inflation capability eliminates the need for any crew to leave the ship ahead of passengers and permits the almost immediate deployment of a second liferaft as soon as the first has been activated. 

Equipment requirements are constantly changing to improve their effectiveness, and a significant challenge for ship operators and cruise companies has been the new requirement for lifejackets. As of July 2010, vessels had to carry the new type of 2010-approved lifejackets for all passengers, including infants, on journeys over 24 hours. Additionally, there had to be the provision of lifejackets for the “large” guest with greater sizes than usual.  

Of course, the best equipment in the world will be of no use if it doesn’t work properly. “We believe the key to improving passenger safety is ensuring that critical safety equipment on board is not only manufactured, but also maintained, to the highest possible standards,” Barker says. “By providing OEM training, rental, servicing and repair services for this equipment, Survitec is making an important contribution to upholding the overall safety standards in the industry.” 

Toward a Common Goal 

Safety has become the holy grail of the industry and its regulators. Cruise companies are working their training and education budgets to strengthen their safety programs and standards have been raised as society becomes more safety-conscious. The incident with the Russian-flagged research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, which became stuck in ice in Antarctica on Christmas Eve and whose 52 passengers had to be evacuated by helicopter, was a stark reminder of the importance of such measures.  

“Overall, cruise lines operate with a high safety standard on the equipment side and have been fast movers on all new safety-related regulations, like the hook-retrofit requirement,” states Niels Fraende, Vice President of Denmark’s Viking Life-Saving Equipment A/S. “A major focus now and in coming years is training and education to secure an even higher safety standard. There is a clear trend toward allocating more resources to internal training programs and a focused cooperation with equipment suppliers to establish the right knowhow level onboard the ships and within the organization. It is our expectation that this focus will intensify over the coming years to the benefit of increased safety onboard cruise liners worldwide.”

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.