The Human Side

How passengers and crew respond in an emergency can make all the difference

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Published May 2, 2019 8:44 PM by Capt. Jonathan Kjaerulff

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2019 edition.)

When the Titanic sank in 1912, many crewmembers went down with the ship so that passengers could survive. When the cruise ship Oceanos foundered off the coast of South Africa in August of 1991, most of the crew – including the Master – abandoned the vessel, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. In 2012, after running his ship onto the rocks, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia gained infamy and imprisonment when he claimed he fell into a lifeboat and lost consciousness, leaving his passengers and most of his crew behind.

How will the crew respond in the next big passenger vessel emergency? Will they lead their guests to safety, attend to their special needs, help them up or down the stairs, make sure everyone is accounted for, and assist the old and infirm into lifeboats? Or will they fall short of expectations? 

How will passengers respond? Will they go to the correct muster station, follow the crew’s instructions, don their lifejackets properly, board the lifeboats in an orderly fashion? Or will they go back to their rooms, pack up their belongings and fight their way into the nearest survival craft? These are questions that keep ships’ officers and safety managers awake at night.

Paying Attention

At the beginning of every trip IMO regulations mandate a passenger safety drill and instruction. As with pre-flight safety briefings aboard airplanes, most passengers consider these proceedings an annoyance and imposition. But since they can’t avoid them, they do their best to studiously ignore them. When was the last time you saw the person in the seat next to you “pause the use of electronic devices” to read the flight safety information card and pay attention to the potentially life-saving procedures being demonstrated?

Muster drills are no different. Because cruises are all about having a good time, few things sound less like fun than crowding cheek-to-jowl with 150 of your fellow pleasure-seekers at the designated muster station and being told how to climb into a lifeboat that feels full after the first 50 people are in it. And that’s before anyone starts to scream, pass out or throw up.

Given that perspective, it’s easy to bury your head in the sand and just reassure yourself that nothing bad is going to happen, and if it does the crew will take care of it or the Coast Guard will come to the rescue. And that’s usually true. In fact, almost all cruises end without incident. Except when they don’t. 

And while the probability of a passenger ship casualty is exceptionally low, the potential consequences can be very high. In addition to death and serious injury, vessel operators know that the loss of a vessel – not to mention the attendant environmental pollution, fines, legal penalties and damage to the brand’s reputation – can sink a company and lead to possible jail time. 

As a result, modern ships are built to SOLAS standards with multiple redundancies to improve safety and reduce the chances of passengers ever having to abandon the vessel after a casualty. The IMO’s Safe Return to Port requirement, applicable to ships whose keels were laid after June of 2010, effectively turns passenger ships into their own lifeboats.

The Human Side

But is it realistic to leave people out of the equation and simply let the ship take care of itself? Probably not. So what about the human side of the equation? 

Emergencies have a lot to do with perception. One person’s emergency is another person’s Monday morning. Most passengers are not mariners. Much of what they see is new to them, and they look to the crew to help them make sense of things.

For example, twenty-foot seas and forty-knot winds may be a mild inconvenience to seasoned mariners but the “Storm of the Century” to people who have never before seen salt water. They may ask their room steward, “Are we going to be OK?,” and the steward’s reassurance carries great weight and allows the guests to relax and enjoy the experience. 

Likewise, if the ship is on fire or listing after a collision or grounding, it can be expected that passengers will ask the nearest crewmember, regardless of rank, department or level of training, if the Captain’s instructions are reasonable. Even after repeated announcements they may plaintively ask:

“Do we really have to go to our muster stations?”

“Do we really have to stand outside in the cold?”

“Is the ship going to sink?”

“Is someone looking for my wife?”

Even if lacking in maritime knowledge, most passengers are excellent observers of crew behavior and interaction. If they perceive the crew working well together during routine tasks, they will be more likely to trust their ability to successfully help them in a crisis. On the other hand, if they deem the crew clumsy, incompetent or uncaring in their everyday activities, they are not likely to suddenly put faith in them when the world around them is falling to pieces. 

In such a case, passengers may determine their best chance of survival is to fend for themselves, ignoring officer and crew instructions. This is what happened with the Costa Concordia when even though the ship had lost power and was obviously sinking, bridge announcements and crew members kept insisting that passengers stay in their rooms. They refused. Chaos ensued.

Passengers’ will to survive may be strong, but the odds of their survival are directly related to the useful survival skills they bring to the table – which in the case of untrained non-mariners is virtually zero.

To be of value in an emergency, crew members must know how to manage passengers and instill confidence. They must learn and practice how to rapidly convert from “passenger service” mode to “passenger safety” mode. What’s the difference? 

When providing passenger service, such as serving a steak or cleaning a room, “the customer is always right.” Even when they’re not. In passenger safety mode, the tables are turned, and the customer may have to take orders from the service provider. This requires not only that the passenger perceive the crew member as a capable professional trained in emergency procedures but that the crew member have the willingness and self-confidence to stand up assertively to passengers who may challenge their authority. 

Real emergencies are unexpected and scary. They may also be messy and confusing. Things that were never supposed to go wrong just did. Survival depends on decisions that must quickly be made based on very little information about things with which people have no prior experience. Everyone affected will want to survive, but who will lead and who will follow? Or will anybody lead? Or everybody?

Tightening the Rules

In an age of ever-increasing regulatory requirements, too many owners and operators see the STCW Crowd Management Training requirement the same way passengers see the obligation to participate in emergency drills – an irritating box to be checked with as little inconvenience as possible. With its content suggested but unregulated by most flag states, the sum total Crowd Management training received by most passenger vessel crew members amounts to a brief talk from a junior mate or maybe an hour or two trying to stay awake in front of a computer screen. 

Prior to the Costa Concordia disaster, the company checked the Crowd Management training box by subjecting new hands to a 37-minute video. Crew members often receive this training after flying 24 hours or more to join their ship as the law says they must have it before they can go to work. The odds of recalling any course material a year after reporting on board are usually pretty unlikely. Since there is no refresher training requirement, any knowledge that still remains at that point continues to atrophy until it’s gone.

Because the quality of many Crowd Management training programs is so poor, the IMO has commissioned new model courses in passenger safety procedures. These specify a minimum of eight hours for Crowd Management and sixteen hours for Crisis Management and Human Behavior. They also call for assessments of competence by qualified instructors and crew members. While IMO model courses are only advisory in nature, flag states do have the ability to adopt them as minimum standards for courses approved for use on their countries’ vessels.  

Predicting how crewmembers will perform their duties to passengers in an emergency will always be a difficult task. Companies and officers who simply hope for the best may be disappointed. Companies and officers who implement realistic training programs, incorporating objective assessments followed by periodic refresher training, can still only speculate how their crews will actually perform in a real emergency. But their speculations will have the benefit of insight gained from first-hand observation of their crews’ knowledge, training and behavior. – MarEx

Captain Jonathan Kjaerulff writes frequently on the subject of maritime safety. He is Business Development Manager at MITAGS-PMI. U.K.-based Charlie Bartlett is a regular contributor to the magazine.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.