Written by attorney Robert Louis Gardana

A new look at cruise ship muster drills and passenger ship evacuation procedures – “women and childr

With the 100 year anniversary of the epic sinking of the RMS Titanic approaching and the recent bizarre grounding of the MS Concordia, undoubtedly maritime disasters are forefront in our minds. The International Maritime Organization, through its Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu, after the MS Concordia tragedy, said that IMO needs to “seriously consider the lessons to be learnt [from the accident] and, if necessary, re-examine the requirements on the safety of large passenger ships."

While the Titanic’s high fatality rate was due in part to the disproportionate number of life boats to passengers, the inaccessibility of many Concordia life boats, (as the port side life boats were ultimately under water and the starboard were incapable of deployment – after capsizing), the inexcusable “instruction" of the Concordia crew to passenger to “return to cabins" for life jackets – will likely prove to be the cause of many Concordia fatalities.

Ironically, all disasters provide “lessons learned." IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu, has stated that IMO is the right international body to deal with safety of passenger ships and, in particular, a safety review after the Costa Concordia accident. He has included an additional item on “Passenger Ship Safety" on the agenda of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, which meets for its 90th session from 16-25 May this year. This will provide an opportunity for IMO Members in the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) to consider any issues arising.

From the Titanic sinking, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed the Safety of Life at Sea Covenants (SOLAS), which requires all commercial vessels, regardless of its flag, to assemble all passengers within 24 hours of embarkation to be instructed on the use of life jackets and the actions to be taken in the event of an emergency. While the Concordia had held a lifeboat drill, in compliance with law, within 24 hours of embarking from Savona the previous Saturday on a seven-day Mediterranean round-trip cruise, there had been no drill for the 600 passengers who boarded January 13 at Civitavecchia, Port of Rome.

Thus, it was within the mandate of SOLAS to conduct the safety drill on the Concordia the morning following its departure from Civitavecchia, as planned. But, once the vessel impacted the rocks off Giglio Island, passengers were traumatized and had no idea what was happening and at this point were told by crew members – go to your cabins to get your life vests. At this point, many of the crew (not all by any means – as there were certainly heroes) seemed to be helpless – from the Captain down. Interestingly, under maritime law, the measure of a cruise ships actions or omissions is measured by the concept of “reasonable under the circumstances." Could anything be less “reasonable under the circumstances" than to tell passengers on a stricken, listing, grounded and capsizing cruise ship to return to their cabins to get life jackets?

So, what lessons were learned from the Concordia incident – especially for the IMO – in relation to possible revisions of SOLAS? Should the IMO consider the adoption of a SOLAS amendment – that passenger vessels must contain a significant number of life jackets at or near muster stations to accommodate the number passenger and crew on board? Certainly, having to return to your cabin to obtain your life jacket will likely be your demise. Presently the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires that “additional life vests be remotely located at survival stations."

Regulation 7 – Personal life-saving appliances: Covers the requirements for life buoys, life jackets and immersion suits and anti-exposure suits. Life jackets must be provided for every person on board ship, plus additional life jackets should be provided for children and for persons on watch and at remotely located survival craft stations.

While most of the life boats on the Concordia were unusable after capsizing, reports indicate many crew appeared were inept or unsure what to do immediatly after the vessel grounded. Why the delay in the abandon ship call? Why were the available life boats not deployed sooner before the vessel capsized? Also, should the crew be required by the SOLAS to have at least participated in a life boat drill actually in a life boat – while being lowered? The time-line of disaster is certainly the matter for much investigation. But, could this apparently paralyzed crew relate to the 2006 SOLAS revision – which dropped the requirement of lowering crew in life boats during drills while they are being lowered into the water? Was the Concordia crew prepared? Does the 2006 SOLAS revision make sense? How effective is training a life boat crew – when it is not required to experience being lowered into the water on board a life boat? Is such training representative of true disaster situations?

As for life jackets being stored at muster stations, the IMO only need look as far as its own regulations regarding ro-ro passenger ships to appreciate the importance of storing life jackets at muster stations. In 1998, Passenger Ship Regulation 26, entitled “Life-saving appliances and arrangements," enacted additional requirements for “ro-ro passenger ships," which mandates:

A sufficient number of life jackets must be stored in the vicinity of muster stations so passengers do not have to return to their cabins for life jackets.

Hence, based on the “ro-ro passenger ship" regulations, the concept of not having to return to your cabin to obtain your life jacket while the vessel is in peril is obviously not a new concept – but maybe the test of time and lessons learned will dictate the IMO expand this regulation to passenger ships. But, as the Concordia is not a “ro-ro" ship, many passengers had to return to their cabins for life jackets only to be lost in the ship and perish – lost to the sea. The IMO should require all large passenger ships follow the same ro-ro regulation to ensure that when such a disaster occurs – you don’t have to enter the bowels of the ship to obtain a life jacket and then go to the muster station. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, LTD is the first major cruise line to store life jackets at muster stations rather than in cabins on the Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.

Also, should not the life boat crew be prepared for a true emergency? There is no doubt that a decisive evacuation plan should be implemented and the IMO should reinstate the requirement for crew on-board life boat lowering drills. The crew should be trained for a real emergency – including lowering the life boat while boarded.

As for future cruisers, the ideal emergency plan should be – when you first board a cruise ship,determine where your muster station is located and make a family plan for disaster which includes going directly to that muster stationnot returning to inside the ship to look for family members or to get your life jacket. It should be the “reasonable under the circumstances" responsibility of cruise line to ensure life jackets are sufficiently available at muster stations and that the crew is sufficiently ready and trained to deploy the life boats.

By: Robert L. Gardana, Esq. – U.S.C.G. Licensed Captain-Master, Maritime Attorney

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