If there’s one eventuality you want to avoid on board a cruise ship, it’s a fire. Floating on the high seas, sometimes hundreds of miles from land, a cruise ship is in a uniquely vulnerable position in this regard. If not dealt with properly, fires could imperil the lives of thousands of passengers and crew.

Although major incidents are rare – and fatalities even rarer – the incidents that have arisen are a sobering reminder of the need for precautions. According to data compiled by cruise expert Ross Klein, as many as 79 fires occurred on cruise ships between 1990 and 2011. While most were small and rapidly dealt with, the industry should be taking any fire as a warning against complacency.

Over the past decade alone, we have seen fires break out on Carnival Triumph (2013), Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas (2013), Oceania Insignia (2014), Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas and Splendour of the Seas (2015), Caribbean Fantasy (2016), Carnival Legend (2019) and MSC Lirica (2021). All these fires were safely contained without casualties excluding the Oceania Insignia fire, which tragically killed three workers.

The most recent example came on 26 May 2022, shortly after Carnival Freedom had docked in port. The ship’s funnel caught alight, forcing the ship to be evacuated. The sister ship, Carnival Conquest, was sent out to retrieve passengers and complete the last leg of the cruise.

“Carnival Freedom’s emergency response team quickly activated and extinguished a fire inside the ship’s funnel while the ship was in Grand Turk,” said Carnival in a statement. “All guests and crew are safe, and the ship’s guests were cleared by local authorities to go ashore. We continue to assess the situation.”

It’s clear that quick responsiveness in this situation – coupled with strong fire prevention and protection systems – can be a lifesaver. So, how are cruise lines dealing with the possibility of fires and what kinds of standards must they abide by to avoid a disaster?

The standards in place

“We understand the risks associated with fires on board cruise ships, and our approach is to proactively work towards the prevention of fire occurrences,” says Eddie Segev, senior vice-president of safety, security and environment at Royal Caribbean Group. “We have robust policies in place, which include large investments in new technologies like laser detection of fuel leaks, as well as partnerships with local and international training facilities.”

Andreas Hildingsson, principal surveyor and ship type expert passenger ships at DNV Maritime, adds that cruise ships have a major responsibility on their hands. They need to be especially vigilant about safety protocols.

“A key challenge is dealing with large numbers of passengers in a limited space, and potentially operating in a remote area without shore support,” he says. “Basically, they need to provide all the functions of a small city in a limited space.”

The first step for shipowners is to comply with the applicable fire standards. Cruise lines are primarily governed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, which were first laid down more than a century ago in response to the sinking of the Titanic.

Following a passenger ship fire in 1934, which caused 134 casualties, IMO added further fire-specific requirements. These were updated in 1974, with the addition of Chapter II-2. Among other rules, the new chapter required all new passenger ships to be built from non-combustible materials and to have either a fixed fire sprinkler or a fixed fire detection system installed.

Since then, there have been several additional rounds of amendments. SOLAS now includes detailed rules around many aspects of fire safety, ranging from the fire integrity of windows to the specifics of helicopter facility foam firefighting appliances.

Cruise ships must also follow flag administration standards, along with the CLIA compendium of policies if they’re a CLIA member.

“Examples include ensuring the readiness of all fixed fire detection and suppression systems, as well as portable firefighting equipment through the multiple weekly and monthly inspections,” says Segev.

Prevention and protection

At Royal Caribbean, this plays out in a few ways. First, crew members conduct regular inspections of every space on board. The idea is to guarantee readiness, but also to make sure all combustible materials are stored in the right place.

Next, the cruise line has strict policies in place around open flames and smoking. These must be done in a controlled and responsible way, and must be monitored at all times. For instance, smoking is only permitted in designated outdoor areas, with the staterooms and interior public areas kept smoke-free. As for candles, incense and the like – these are entirely prohibited.

“Filtering and cleaning of lint in laundry rooms, elimination of grease in galley ducts, proper disposal of oily rags and towels, garbage handling and incinerator safety are other key fire safety standards all our ships are required to follow,” says Segev.

Finally, all ships are equipped with high-pressure water mist to extinguish any blazes that do arise. For instance, Marioff’s HI-FOG water mist fire protection systems (currently installed on hundreds of cruise ships worldwide) have been designed to protect a wide range of spaces.

Suitable for use in the staterooms, deep fat fryers, machinery spaces and pump rooms alike, the sprinklers include a heat-sensitive gas bulb, which breaks and activates the system at a certain temperature. The pump unit starts automatically, discharging water mist throughout the area. (Marioff says that its systems, unlike earlier types of water sprinkler, are designed to keep water damage to a minimum.)

Systems of this nature, along with other fixed firefighting systems (CO2 and foam, ventilation control, closure of fire doors and others), represent a vessel’s first line of defence. As Hildingsson points out, ships need to look beyond their ‘fire prevention’ focus and think about containment too.

“They need to include systems for detecting a fire, such as smoke alarms,” he says. “Additionally, cruise vessels must comply with strict requirements for escape routes, as well as strict requirements around training and drills for crew.”

The role played by crew and passengers

‘Strict’, then, is really the watchword – unsurprising when you consider the stakes. Should the worst-case scenario arise, the crew will know exactly what to do, while specially assigned firefighters will arrive promptly on the scene to contain and extinguish the blaze.

“Despite the high effectiveness fire detection and suppression systems offer, we always activate highly trained fire teams in parallel,” says Segev. “We provide verbal instructions over the PA system, which will activate and direct different tactical groups to the location of the fire for the rapid commencement of firefighting efforts.”

The relevant training, he says, takes place in approved facilities ashore, supplemented with weekly training by safety officers once on board. Every week, crew members participate in fire drills, with scenarios ranging from engine room fires to those in the staterooms and public spaces.

“This training is governed by international standards. In addition, crew members are trained and tasked to guide passengers to right locations in the case of a calamity,” says Hildingsson.

The situation for passengers would depend on the nature of the fire. Sometimes, as a proactive measure, cruise lines would summon passengers at the earliest stages of an emergency. In this instance, the ship’s safety officer would use the PA system to sound the emergency signal and let them know what they needed to do next.

“A key challenge is dealing with large numbers of passengers in a limited space, and potentially operating in a remote area without shore support. Basically, they need to provide all the functions of a small city in a limited space.”

Andreas Hildingsson

“All passengers are familiarised with this alarm when they receive the mandatory safety briefing during embarkation day and all ships are required to physically sound such alarm before departure,” says Segev. “This and more safety information for all passengers can be found at the back of their stateroom door, in the TV or RCG app.”

These kinds of safety protocols are in place across the industry. According to CLIA, the average ship plays host to five advanced firefighting teams, 4,000 smoke detectors, 500 fire extinguishers, 16 miles of sprinkler piping, 5,000 sprinkler heads and six miles of fire hose. While a fire would certainly put a dampener on passengers’ holiday plans, they can at least be assured that any modern ship exists in a state of constant vigilance.

“Our goal is to ensure we always have an active barrier against fires,” says Segev. “While the various sets of regulations provide the minimum standards we abide by, our mantra is to always go above and beyond compliance. We frequently adopt more stringent fire safety policies and procedures.”