Costa Concordia by Cyr0z, http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyrz/

As the death toll mounts, the Costa Concordia tragedy horrifies us more and more, especially since it has become apparent the ship never should have hit the rock which tore a 300 foot hole in its hull, and that more timely and decisive action by the captain and crew of the ship might have prevented all loss of life.

I have been researching cruise ship safety for some time, beginning with a review of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. I think the Concordia tragedy has clearly shown regulation reform must be the order of the day to better ensure the safety of all on the seas.

Throughout the world, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), an international maritime safety treaty, sets the safety standards for cruise ships.

Of particular importance to cruise ship passengers should be the SOLAS regulations regarding lifeboats, and passenger/crew drills to prepare for emergencies.

Regulations require each side of cruise ships have enough lifeboats to accommodate 37.5% of the total number of persons on board (passengers and crew), 75% in total. Inflatable or rigid liferafts must accommodate the remaining 25% of passengers and crew. (SOLAS, Section II, Regulation 21, 1.1) Many cruise ships today, such as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, carry more lifeboat capacity than required, but still not enough, even with the liferafts added in, to accommodate all if a significant number of lifeboats become unusable due to serious ship listing.

SOLAS does require that cruise ship lifeboats can be launched while the ship is listing as much as 20º. Of course, with many still on board the Concordia, the ship was listing far more than that.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), who is responsible for SOLAS, should seriously consider upgrading the capacity of lifeboats and liferafts on each side of ships to overcome a reduced capacity if listing, fire or other problems reduce the number of lifeboats and liferafts which can be used and launched, in case a cruise ship must be abandoned.

The IMO should consider requiring equipment changes to ensure more lifeboats and liferafts can be launched from cruise ships despite listing in excess of 20º. While it’s possible this may require cruise ships are outfitted with a completely different method of launching lifeboats and liferafts, and other major changes, this change would seem to be necessary.

According to SOLAS, Chapter III, Part B, Regulation 19, 2.2, at worst, a muster drill must take place within 24 hours of sailing, for all cruise ship passengers and crew.

If you’re not familiar with the muster drill, it’s important to understand what they are.

Each cruise ship has muster stations spread out in various parts of the ship, such as dining rooms, casinos and theaters, where passengers are required to go in case of emergency, to receive safety information and instructions how and where to proceed to potentially to abandon the ship, if necessary. At the muster station the crew will take a census of passengers to ensure all are accounted for. Then as necessary, the passengers and crew will be led to other parts of the ship, and sent off the ship in lifeboats and liferafts, if required.

At the muster drill, at the sound of the alarm, all passengers are required to go to their muster station as assigned to their cabin. Each cabin’s muster station assignment and physical location is clearly designated in each cabin on the door. Each cabin has a pair of life vests which passengers have been expected, in the past, to take to the muster station during the drill.

At the muster station drill a passenger census is taken to ensure all passengers are participating. Passengers are given instructions about what to do in actual emergencies, how to put on their life vests, and eventually guided to where they would board their lifeboat or liferaft in a real emergency.

Crew members, assigned various duties for actual emergencies, during the muster drill fulfill them as if it was a real emergency.

In my opinion, the muster drill is an essential practice session for passengers and crew alike. The crew improves their ability to carry out emergency orders to ensure passenger safety and to help passengers abandon the ship, if necessary.

Passengers become familiar with the ship’s emergency procedures and what they must do to protect themselves in case of fire or other emergencies, and if they must, abandon the ship. Familiarity helps eliminate, or at least reduce, confusion and panic on the part of the passengers which would be natural in the event of a real emergency.

Having gone through a real aircraft emergency landing and evacuation, I can tell you unequivocally that eliminating, or at least reducing passenger panic is essential if passengers are to remain safe, despite suffering a real emergency requiring an evacuation.

In my opinion, the IMO must revise its muster drill regulations in two ways.

First, the muster drill must be carried out prior to a cruise ship leaving its port of embarkation, as we know from the Concordia, and emergency can take place within 24 hours of sailing. Passengers on the Concordia reported chaos and panic overwhelmed passengers and crew. While some panic may still have occurred, had the crew been better practiced and the muster drill taken place, it’s likely the ship would have been abandoned more quickly and safely, and lives might have been saved.

Second, having attended many muster drills myself, I have witnessed countless passengers put on their life vests so badly, that if ever thrust in the water, the vests would come off. The IMO must require life vests be worn by passengers during the muster drill and every passenger’s vest be inspected and if improperly worn, shown how to do it right.

The IMO must ensure that many of the problems encountered by the passengers of the Concordia are not repeated due to inadequate regulation.