In the two years since the tragic grounding of the Costa Concordia, the media spotlight has been firmly on the standards of safety in the cruise industry. While this incident deservedly made the front pages, it may have led to skewed perceptions about the sector’s overall standard when it comes to passenger safety.

"The industry does have a good track record, especially if you compare it with air travel or even driving a car on the road," says Stuart Hawkins, SVP of health, environment, safety and security compliance at Princess Cruises. "There have certainly been some unfortunate and high-profile incidents in recent years, but safety has always been a top priority."

While any major incident gives the industry cause to step back and re-evaluate its approach to safety issues, the industry’s investment in technology and training is consistently at the top of the agenda.

"We are extremely proactive in promoting continuous improvement in on-board safety, and we have a mission to promote policies and practices that provide a safe environment for passengers and crew," says Captain Svein Sleipnes, SVP marine operations at Norwegian Cruise Line. "After the Costa Concordia incident, however, we did a thorough review to look for ways to improve."

Regulators, too, have taken a closer look at the issue in recent years, with new guidelines for the industry coming into force. In 2012, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) instigated an operational safety review, which resulted in stricter requirements for cruise line operators, though earlier moves in the regulatory sphere had already changed the landscape.

In 2010, for instance, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 (CVSSA) came into effect and, in the same year, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) introduced Safe Return to Port regulations, which laid down performance requirements for essential systems that must remain operational following damage by fire and flooding.

"Another innovation that holds great promise is the widespread use of flooding sensors throughout a vessel."

These new requirements were driven by the growing size of passenger ships and an increase in passenger numbers over the years, which shifted the industry’s risk parameters. The goal was to ensure that ships are designed for improved survivability, in line with the old saying that ‘a ship is its own best lifeboat’.

"Safe Return to Port is fundamental to the industry, and that is the big thing that has affected the design of new ships," says Hawkins. "Some of the designs that we had were no longer valid, so we had to start from scratch. It is a wonderful opportunity to look at the whole picture of safety systems on board, and we have invested a lot in making sure that all of our systems are integrated."

Information systems

Technology can improve risk management and responses to safety issues in many ways, but the key driver of innovation is the need for better situational awareness. A major aspect Hawkins refers to is the management of information to improve response times and enable safety crews to tackle threats in a clear and focused way.

"Information is the key thing," he says. "With integrated systems, we can respond to fire or flooding more effectively, as the whole of the overall safety system is now extremely robust. We have a fully redundant, Wi-Fi-enabled, structured cabling system on our new vessels, which brings together different systems such as CCTV, smoke detectors and fire alarms, with feeds coming onto a large touch screen on the bridge.

"All members of the team in the safety centre see the same information and, using Wi-Fi, that information can be sent to tablets used by fire teams; for example, so that they have much better tactical awareness. Accurate information can be sent back and forth seamlessly. Although it is hard to retrofit this kind of infrastructure on existing ships, because of the complexity of linking to batteries and back-up power systems, it is an integral part of the design of new vessels."

Sleipnes confirms that Norwegian has focused on similar priorities in its efforts to upgrade its safety systems.

"Surveillance cameras, for instance, play an important part in our automated fire safety systems," he notes. "If a fire alarm comes up, then the feed from the surveillance camera immediately comes on-screen in the control room. Over the last five years, a lot of work has also gone into systems redundancy in order to ensure that a ship can return to port if there is a safety issue. Propulsion systems, for example, will not be disabled when there is the right level of redundancy. There are also man-overboard detection systems that we are testing on our ships now."

Man-overboard detection systems are the focus of much innovation, and many cruise lines are investigating the potential of sensor arrays around the perimeter of their vessels that can not only detect a person falling overboard, but also pick up attempts to embark. In the former scenario, response times are crucial to saving lives, so sensors connected to an integrated information management system could have tremendous value.

Another innovation that holds great promise is the widespread use of flooding sensors throughout a vessel, which Hawkins reports is the current procedure with new vessels at Princess. Were there to be a collision, these sensors would enable safety teams to immediately identify which areas of a ship were flooding and how fast.

At Norwegian, a new electronic system is being installed on selected vessels. It uses wireless connectivity to ensure that information is passed quickly and securely to safety officers, enabling them to more quickly get an accurate picture of how well an evacuation is proceeding. Similar capability is likely to be the main platform for future technology developments.

"A lot of work is being done with CCTV, which can detect fires," says Hawkins. "It may, in fact, be more effective than smoke or flame detectors because it works faster. It can be linked to automatic fire suppression systems, so it would work well in engineering. So far, it appears to be failsafe, as it generates few false alarms. Carnival Corporation is rolling out upgrades to CCTV systems, bilge flooding systems and HI-FOG sprinkler systems as part of on-going investment in safety. It is not just a reaction to recent events. Money spent on safety is, and always has been, money well spent."

For Sleipnes, the goal is to fine-tune existing technologies; although, he stresses that equal focus should be placed on building and maintaining the skills of crew and safety officers, using expertise within the industry and from external sources.

"You need people on board who can operate the equipment in the right way and react immediately. A delay can mean disaster if there is a fire."

"We have a strong operational team with solid experience in emergency and shipboard systems, but we are always open to input from external consultants with a proven track record," he remarks. "Simulation and training are fundamentally important, too, as are the basic safety skills, which are the same as they have always been. For instance, shiphandling and manoeuvring skills are essential, even though navigation technology has changed a lot. You have to remember wind and currents as basic elements that affect shiphandling capability. Big ships have a big wind area, so basic seamanship is as important to safety as it ever was."

"You need people on board who can operate the equipment in the right way and react immediately," says Hawkins. "A delay can mean disaster if there is a fire. So, crew training is fundamentally important even when there is innovation in technology. We can also learn a lot from other industries, such as aviation or the oil and gas sector, as well as external consultants. It is all about instilling a culture of safety."

Sharing the responsibility

Safety standards are not a differentiator between cruise lines. They are instead a priority for the industry as a whole, and it is through a collaborative approach that it will maintain its enviable track record.

"The industry has to be completely open about safety and CLIA is the forum for it to collaborate on that issue. Cruise lines share their policies and are always transparent," says Sleipnes.

One recent example of cruise lines and safety agencies working together is the three-day Black Swan Exercise conducted in the Bahamas in April 2013, which saw members of the US Coast Guard, cruise vessels Norwegian Sky and Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Sea, emergency response teams and key local officials participate in a simulated maritime mass rescue event.

To passengers, it may seem as though there is a low-key approach to safety, but this is because cruise lines work hard to maintain the delicate balance between robust systems and procedures on one hand, and passenger comfort on the other.

"It is vital to get the balance right," remarks Sleipnes. "We want passengers to have a worry-free vacation and not have them thinking about their safety all the time. We are very transparent about our policies, which can easily be viewed online, and passengers may see some of the on-going training of crew on board, as well as the state-of-the-art technology with which our ships are equipped."

Behind the scenes, the industry is making great efforts to maximise the safety of passengers and crew in order to uphold what is an excellent industry track record.