Monday, January 16, 2012

Disbelief over Costa Concordia, safety procedures on cruise ships

*A second post on the Costa Concordia here.

I am still absolutely shocked by the Costa Concordia accident that occurred Friday evening, off an Italian island. As the days have gone by, more details of course have emerged, and it seems like the scene was just absolutely chaotic, especially as the ship started leaning and people were trying to make their way to lifeboats (or, when that failed, jumped into the sea).

Not surprisingly, it makes me think of my own time on ships. It's funny, while I have absolutely no intention of working on a cruise ship again - I loved it when I was there, but it's in the past now - I often have dreams where I cheerfully find myself on a ship and then I slowly realize that I am working there, trapped. I have dreams like this probably every week or two, but why, I don't know. I even had one last night.

But I digress...According to Reuters, "Passengers say there were unexplained delays in organizing the evacuation of those on board and this had resulted in chaos."  I am not at all surprised by this - what else would it be, really? Even though the crew is trained week in and week out on safety procedures, I'm not sure you can really prepare for that moment.

When I first started on ships, in 1998, safety procedures were pretty lax. When you first sign on to a ship, both then and now, you have to attend about a week of sessions on general safety procedures, and at the end, you have to take a test, usually multiple choice. At the beginning of my tenure, supposedly you could fail three times before getting fired; however, the rumor was that the safety officer would help you before it got to that. (This was more of an issue for some of the behind-the-scenes crew who didn't necessarily speak English that well and thus couldn't understand the safety lectures or booklet.)

In the early years, we had to participate in a safety drill about once a month, that took place when we were in port somewhere, whenever our particular group was called. Every crew member was assigned to a safety number, which specifically outlined their emergency duty and was listed on an enormous billboard in the crew area; some people were assigned to the fire-fighting, medical or lifeboat teams while others might be in charge of a muster station (a passenger emergency station), stairway control, or have to search passenger cabins. As a youth coordinator, I was always responsible for getting the kids to their muster station; since this is a very difficult thing to practice with invisible children, what we did during the safety drill varied every contract. Sometimes we just sat in the kids' facility and gossiped while other contracts we would have to act as runners (which is also a very difficult thing to practice). Things were so lax in my early years on ships that at one point, I was actually a lifeboat commander because our guy was never able to attend and when he did, he had no idea how to work the thing. I found this particularly alarming and ended up taking the three- or four-week course just so I could feel confident that I could save myself (and obviously others) if push came to shove.

The only time of real serious stress was in anticipation of the US Coast Guard drill, which happened once a year (or maybe once every six months? It's hard to remember); basically, the Coast Guard would board the ship on a port day and watch us go through the motions and ask random crew members questions. If we failed as a ship, we couldn't set sail.

As the years went on, the safety procedures got a lot more serious. In my memory, it seemed to happen in 2001, coinciding with 9/11, when security also significantly improved. We started to have drills every week, and you were expected to do your duty and do it well. Every crewmember was also expected to get other certifications; a particularly fun one was the day-long fire training, which I did at a facility in British Columbia when we were docked in Vancouver. We got to wear all the fire gear and had to put out fires with the hoses. It was sort of an interesting training considering I would never have been put on the fire team (because you could only have one emergency duty), but I guess the reasoning was that everyone should have basic training in this area, since fire is considered the biggest hazard at sea.

Of course, the passengers had a drill they were required to participate in, and this was required to happen within 24 hours of setting sail. Reportedly, the Costa Concordia hadn't yet held their drill (for everyone or just some passengers isn't yet clear), but in all honesty, I don't think it would have mattered. We (the youth coordinators) were almost always required to help with the passenger drill, even though we wouldn't have been present in a real emergency, and it was like pulling teeth. Most passengers never wanted to be there and barely paid attention; each muster station was allotted just a small space on deck, and it was amazingly hard to get everyone to line up next to each other without significant grumbling. If the weather was bad, passengers got pretty pissed at us for making them be there. I'm sure it just never seemed relevant to them, especially when they just wanted to have fun on that first afternoon onboard, but of course, it didn't bode well for an actual emergency.

I am eternally grateful that in my six years on cruise ships, nothing major ever happened. For most of my six years, I worked for one company, and there were only two major accidents, which happened on other ships in the fleet: One ship crashed into a cargo ship in the English Channel at like 1 a.m., bashing in the front, while another's boiler blew up while it was docked in Miami, killing multiple crew members. That last accident still makes me very sad, even thinking about it nearly 10 years later.

There were of course lots of smaller incidents - for example, I was once on a ship that crashed into a Holland America ship while we pulling out of Cozumel; that same week, the ship's water system broke and it rained down the entire aft staircase. But the one that really sticks out in my mind happened my second summer, the last night of the cruise. That night, we only had a 45-minute program so we were pretty lax with the kids' safety bracelets, which they were required to wear at all times since it listed their muster stations and other important information. It always seemed like nothing could happen...and then that one night, there was a fire in the kitchen right next to our facility. As everyone streamed out of the restaurant and smoke began to fill the hall, we looked at each other in a panic; in the moment, it was really hard to figure out what to do. Should we wait for further instructions or move down to our emergency meeting point on deck 7? (The average crew member doesn't know what's going on in an emergency; the only advantage you really have as an employee is that you know what the codes mean when they're called over the PA system. You're not supposed to move to the muster stations until the captain calls it, and at that point, everyone knows.) We ended up taking the kids down to the meeting point, just to be safe, and of course half of them didn't have their bracelets on. It was a really scary half hour; in the end, nothing happened, they put the fire out and we were all fine. But it was a lesson learned; after that, when I was the manager, I was pretty darn strict about our safety procedures. But in general, the experience was a real eye-opener into how scary and panicky an actual accident could be. My heart goes out to those who were on the Costa Concordia. Pin It

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