As the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic disaster approaches, the Costa Concordia grounding is a stark reminder that going to sea remains dangerous. A modern cruise ship sailing a routine route capsized in a matter of minutes in beautiful weather, leaving at least 11 people dead. About 15 million people took a cruise last year, and they are asking tough questions. Are the massive passenger vessels stable enough to withstand grounding or collision? Are the international crews capable of coordinating a rapid evacuation of thousands of people? Who oversees the operations of these vessels?
Now is the time to re-examine international safety regulations, particularly as the investigation reveals what went wrong off the Tuscan coast. The International Maritime Organization should conduct a stem-to-stern review of safety system requirements and damage control and stability criteria for passenger vessels. And the United States must take a major leadership role in this comprehensive undertaking, guided by our official guardians of sea safety: the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Titanic sinking led to the first international law on passenger vessel safety: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Thanks to SOLAS and its progeny, today's cruise ships are equipped with life boats, life jackets for all passengers, and damage control equipment. Since 1914, ships and ship systems have evolved technologically and have grown in size and capacity. The typical cruise ship today carries 2,700 passengers and 800 crew and has 4,000 smoke detectors, 500 fire extinguishers, 5,000 sprinkler heads, 16 miles of sprinkler piping, and six miles of fire hose. However, in a crisis, technology is no replacement for trained people. Knowing how to operate the damage control equipment and direct passengers to safety means the difference between life and death.
The Coast Guard is charged with oversight of all of these safety systems for any cruise ships calling on U.S. ports, no matter where they are flagged. The Coast Guard is concerned with the protection of people and the environment, and the inspections are rigorous. Safety visits are announced and unannounced, and inspections begin from the time a vessel is constructed. The Coast Guard reviews plans and examines the vessel in the shipyard and upon delivery. Inspectors board cruise ships annually to check for compliance with federal and international laws, and also do quarterly visits.
On the safety side, Coast Guard inspections focus on structural fire safety, proper functioning of all safety systems and equipment including firefighting systems, lifesaving equipment and lifeboats, life rafts and life jackets. Inspectors meet with the ship's master to review training records and certifications. Additionally, the inspection teams observe the ship's crew conducting fire and abandon-ship drills, and require them to demonstrate that key equipment — such as steering systems, fire pumps and bilge pumps — can be operated in an emergency. The local Coast Guard captain of the port has authority to detain a vessel that cannot meet the standards and stop it from sailing until it does.
SOLAS also requires that lifeboats be capable of being loaded, launched and maneuvered away from the ship within 30 minutes of the master's signal to abandon ship. This is critical. Those who live in places where cruise ships call have no doubt seen the boat drills being conducted while passengers go ashore for sightseeing. Americans who have taken cruises can recount how they were assigned a lifeboat and participated in a drill once aboard.
The U.S. Coast Guard is closely following the tragic grounding of the Costa Concordia and has offered to participate in the investigation. The Italian government should welcome the expertise and experience of these seasoned officers. Once the investigation has concluded, the International Maritime Organization should take the lessons learned and address any issues raised in a comprehensive review of passenger vessel stability and safety criteria. Tragedies like the Titanic must remain in the distant past.
Melissa Bert is a captain with the U.S. Coast Guard and a former captain of the port. She is a visiting fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. Her email is [email protected]. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.