Three fires, a Senate hearing and a resignation. The first half of 2013 was one to forget for the cruise industry in general and Carnival Cruise Lines in particular.

What started as a fire aboard the Carnival Triumph in the small hours of 10 February escalated into a public relations disaster for the Miami-based operator. The blaze in the engine room disabled the 272m-long ship’s power and propulsion systems, leaving 3,100 passengers stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for five days with dwindling food reserves, no air conditioning and inadequate sanitation.

It was the third such incident aboard a Carnival Corporation-owned liner in recent years, following high-profile engine room fires aboard the Carnival Splendor in 2010 and the Costa Allegra last year.

In an effort to steady the ship, chairman and CEO Micky Arison announced a forensic operational review of 101 vessels across ten brands, followed by a $600-million fleet-wide upgrade progamme.

"Absolutely nothing is more important than the safety and comfort of our guests and crew, and we will use the full resources of our company to meet that commitment," he said.

But for many, it was too little, too late. With Carnival’s share price in freefall and bookings in decline, Arison stepped down as chief executive of the world’s largest cruise line in June after 34 years.

That same month, the Triumph failed its first inspection following repairs. US coastguard inspectors uncovered three serious deficiencies related to fire detection and lifeboat drills. In July, Gerald Cahill, president and CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, appeared before a US Senate committee.

The ship eventually returned to service after four months at a cost of $115 million – the reputational damage to the Carnival brand may take somewhat longer to repair.

Far from being an isolated incident, the crisis aboard the Triumph was one of three fires on cruise liners in 2013. In May, a blaze that started in a mooring area damaged several decks on Royal Caribbean International’s 1,950-passenger Grandeur of the Seas en route to the Bahamas.

Then, in June, the Zenith, a cruise liner operated by Royal Caribbean subsidiary Pullmantur Cruises, had to be towed to port in Venice after an engine room fire left the ship without power.

Fleet-wide operational upgrades

The three incidents propelled the issue of fire safety to the top of the cruise industry agenda and galvanised Carnival Cruise Lines into rolling out an unprecedented $300-million enhancement programme aimed at boosting emergency power capabilities, implementing new fire safety technology and improving the level of operating redundancies – back-up technology designed to replicate key engineering systems – across its 24-strong fleet.

"The fire suppression and detection systems on Carnival Triumph worked as designed and were very effective," said the company’s vice-president of technical operations Mark Jackson, a former US coastguard commander hired in April to oversee the fleet-wide upgrade programme. "But we felt it was important to add the highest technology in these areas, so we’ve upgraded the systems.

"Since we have two different engine rooms, we’ve recabled them, so if a problem does occur in one, we don’t incapacitate the other. We’ve added an additional generator, so in the unlikely event that we lose power on board, we’re still able to provide power to guest services such as elevators, toilets and fresh water.

"Carnival Corporation chairman and CEO Micky Arison announced a fleet-wide operational review of 101 vessels across ten brands."

"The three enhancements in fire safety, redundancy and back-up power are going to be done on all the ships in the Carnival fleet," he added.

The second permanent back-up power system on each ship will also provide guests with improved ‘hotel’ services, cooking facilities and cold food storage, as well as internet and telephone communications, should main power be lost.

At the time of writing, two Carnival vessels – Sunshine and Triumph – have been overhauled, with Breeze scheduled to be fitted with a second emergency diesel generator in September. More complex modifications, including the reconfiguration of engine-related electrical equipment, may require longer lead times; the programme of enhancements will continue into 2015.

As Jackson mentioned, the company is also investing in leading-edge fire prevention, detection and suppression systems. Existing on board water mist systems will be replaced with new high-pressure equipment that produces a larger, thicker blanket of water droplets.

As these droplets evaporate, the system rapidly cools areas of intense heat to prevent the possibility of a fire restarting. The number of water mist nozzles on ships is also being significantly increased, from around 30 to 500, while a 24/7 manned patrol will be deployed to check for oil or fuel leaks.

Cultural revolution

The cruise industry adheres to the rigid regulations outlined in the ‘International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea’ (SOLAS), as developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). These exhaustive regulations encompass fire prevention, fire protection and extinguishing systems, crew training and fire emergency response.

"What happened on Triumph is horrible for our guests and we never want that to happen again. It’s something that we learned the hard way."

Modern cruise ships are also equipped with passive fire-and smoke-fighting measures, including fire-rated interior doors and partitions, fire dampers and ventilation systems.

In addition to adhering to a multitude of industry standards, and engaging with external experts and regulatory bodies, Carnival recently announced the formation of a Safety and Reliability Review Board.

Comprising a panel of independent experts – including two retired US Navy Rear Admirals, a former Delta Airlines vice-president and a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board – the review board will work alongside Carnival Cruise Line’s technical experts to monitor and report on the full gamut of the operator’s safety policies and procedures.

"The formation of our Safety and Reliability Review Board is an integral part of how Carnival Cruise Lines will drive continuous improvement across our fleet," said Cahill. "We will be responsive to its recommendations."

Communication is key

This emphasis on transparency and collaboration also extends to Carnival’s work with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). In addition to sharing the results of its post-Triumph findings with CLIA as part of its industry-wide operational review announced in March, Carnival has signed up to the new Cruise Passenger Bill of Rights.

Adopted by CLIA and its 22 North American members in the wake of the Triumph engine room fire – as well as the emergency diesel generator failure aboard sister ship Carnival Dream a month later – this seminal document stresses the importance of timely communication between operator and passenger in the event of an emergency.

While Royal Caribbean was praised for its handling of the fire aboard Grandeur of the Seas, Carnival, rightly or wrongly, was widely perceived as having failed to get ahead of the Triumph crisis as it unfolded and being out of touch with the needs of its passengers after it temporarily suspended its social media presence in the aftermath of the incident. Carnival has since added a ‘News and Updates’ tab to its Facebook page where it responds to feedback and posts press releases.

This heightened level of customer engagement, combined with the company’s fleet-wide fire safety, redundancy and back-up power enhancements, is key as the world’s number one cruise operator strives to restore passenger and investor confidence in its tarnished global brand.

"What happened on Triumph is horrible for our guests and we never want that to happen again," said Mark Jackson. "But unfortunately, it’s something that we learned the hard way."