Crew Role in a Cruise Ship Emergency


When an emergency on a cruise ship occurs, the officers and crew on board are trained to manage virtually any situation. From a shipboard fire and abandoning ship to other cruise ship emergencies there is a Safety Management System (SMS) in place to implement the cruise line’s safety policies and procedures.


Recent Cruise Ship Emergencies in the News

The recent and tragic grounding of the Costa Concordia in January 2012, has put cruise ship emergencies in the spotlight and motivated most cruise lines to reassure the public of their own cruise ship safety practices. Days after the accident, Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Costa, announced an audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures across all of the company’s cruise lines.

Other high profile cruise ship emergencies have included the shipboard fires on Carnival Splendor (2010), Star Princess (2006) and Carnival Ecstasy (1998). Although most media sources are quick to point out the negative, the role of the crew in cruise ship emergencies is crucial in minimizing loss of life, injuries and damages.


Safety Management System (SMS) on Cruise Ships

The objective of an on board safety management system is to ensure safety at sea, and the prevention of injuries and loss of life. The safety management skills of personnel onboard and cruise line personnel ashore must comply with mandatory rules and regulations as those specified by Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). These skills include preparing for and responding to emergencies by using procedures, plans and instructions, and checklists developed by each cruise line.


Highlights of SOLAS and Cruise Ship Emergencies

Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) details the minimum standards of safety on board cruise ships. Chapter III: Life-Saving Appliances and Arrangements discusses the role of the crew in cruise ship emergencies and the level of training that is required.  Here are the key standards to know:

  • There should be two-way communication between emergency control stations, muster and embarkation stations, and strategic positions onboard.
  • There should be a sufficient number of trained persons onboard for mustering and assisting untrained persons.
  • There should be a sufficient number of certified persons onboard for launching and operating of survival craft (lifeboats and life rafts.)
  • Every crew member with assigned emergency duties should be familiar with these duties before the voyage begins.
  • Every crew member shall participate in at least one abandon ship drill and one fire drill every month.
  • All survival craft onboard shall be capable of being launched with their full complement of persons and equipment within a period of 30 minutes from the time the abandon ship signal is given.


Crew Training for Cruise Ship Emergencies

Due to the large number of passengers on a cruise ship, all the ship’s personnel (not just the deck and engine officers) must assist passengers in case of an emergency. Every crewmember has a crucial role to play in the event of an emergency.

Unfortunately, one of the problems of the cruise industry is the high turnover of seafarers. This can have implications for the implementation of the safety of the ship. Therefore, cruise ships must offer ongoing safety training for their crewmembers.

This on board training, at the very least, includes the use of survival craft and fire extinguishing equipment. Crew and officers in select cruise jobs are given additional training such as crowd management, Certificate of Proficiency in Survival Craft (CPSC), and advanced fire-fighting. A safety training manual is also provided in each crew cabin. It contains instructions and information on life-saving equipment provided on the ship as well as safety at sea.


Crew Role in a Fire Drill

Many cruise ships go beyond the once a month drill requirement and conduct a fire drill for crew once per cruise. Often times the Port State Control (Coast Guard) may be present to make sure that the cruise ship is in compliance of maritime laws.

Typically, there is an initial announcement that alerts and instructs a team to check out an area that may have a fire. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines use the code phrase, Alpha Team, as in “Alpha Team, Alpha Team, Alpha Team, Deck 0 Engine Room”.  After a fire, (simulated or not), is determined, the crew alert signal is sounded next.

The crew report to their crew alert station upon hearing the signal and prepare for their emergency duties as described in the ship’s muster list. Other requirements of this drill include a fire team starting a fire pump, checking the firemen’s personal rescue equipment and checking communication equipment. The operation of watertight doors, fire doors, fire dampers and ventilation inlets and outlets in the drill area are also checked.

The drill continues as teams (aka: parties) simulate fighting the fire, cool adjacent areas, rescue casualties, prepare lifeboats, man the muster stations and get into position. Meanwhile zone commanders and muster control verify that all crew are accounted for. When crewmembers are in position, the General Emergency Signal (GES) is sounded indicating that passengers and crew will proceed to their dedicated muster stations.


Crew’s Role in Abandon Ship Drill

As per SOLAS requirements, during an abandon ship drill, the crew are exercised on a number of skills. As a matter of time, this drill may follow directly after the fire drill. If that’s the case, the exercise may simulate that the fire was not able to be contained and the crew and passengers are summoned to their muster stations by sounding the GES alarm.

The drill includes a mock search and rescue of passengers trapped in cabins. In addition, one lifeboat must be prepared, launched, started and operated. Many cruise ships take the opportunity to launch more than one life boat and a rescue boat at this time as a matter of additional training. This is due to the fact that, as per SOLAS, each lifeboat must be launched with its assigned operation crew and manoeuvred in the water every three months.


Resources for Cruise Ship Emergencies

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