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Cruise Ship Safety: What to Expect in a Muster Drill

The tragedy aboard Costa Concordia has focused the spotlight on the industry's safety and evacuation procedures for cruise passengers. Two experts offer their insider's take on muster drills and how to be prepared for onboard emergencies.

If the Costa Concordia tragedy has left you questioning your next cruise vacation, here are eight basic answers that you should know about cruise ship safety -- and what you can do to stay prepared.

The cruise industry is already actively reexamining some of its safety procedures. About 10 days after Costa Concordia hit rocks and sank off the coast of Italy, at least two cruise lines -- Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas -- announced that its ships would now hold all muster drills on embarkation day.

"On just a handful of occasions the drill is held the following morning, primarily to accommodate late-arriving guests," Robin Lindsay, executive vice president of vessel operations for Prestige Cruise Holdings, said in a press release. "However, in light of the recent tragic event, Oceania and Regent have adopted a new policy that requires all muster drills to take place on day of departure."

For the nearly 700 Costa Concordia passengers who boarded in Civitavecchia a few hours before the accident, their muster drill was not scheduled until the following day. In the wake of the Costa accident, other cruise lines (including Royal Caribbean International and Crystal Cruises) have also confirmed plans to hold all muster drills on the day of departure.

"Whatever the emergency may be, the only safe option you have is to follow the instructions that are announced on the public address system by the trained officers and crew," says Atle Ellefsen, a naval architect and a senior principal consultant with DNV, one of the world's leading classification societies for the maritime industry.

Another expert, Ben Lyons, served aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for five years in various capacities, including as Safety and Chief Officer, before moving to an Antarctica expedition ship company and working there as Chief Officer. Both Ellefsen and Lyons reveal what to expect during emergency muster drills.

1. Is there a protocol for how emergency drills on cruise ships should be conducted?

Lyons: The Safety of Life at Sea convention requirements are fairly basic when it comes to muster drill procedures. (SOLAS is the international basis for maritime regulations and has been adopted by the International Maritime Organization, which itself is part of the U.N.) These requirements simply state that for a voyage where passengers are to be onboard for more than 24 hours, "a muster of the passengers shall take place within 24 hours after their embarkation. Passengers shall be instructed in the use of life jackets and the action to take in an emergency."

For those times when a ship decides not to hold a drill before or at sailing, SOLAS states that "a passenger safety briefing shall be given immediately before sailing, or immediately after sailing." The content of this briefing must be "clear instructions to be followed in the event of an emergency." In instances where a full muster is not held immediately before departure, this briefing is often done over the public address system. Videos shown in cabins may supplement the briefing, but may not replace the briefing.

In practice, the requirements usually translate into all passengers going back to their cabins, grabbing his or her life jacket, and then assembling at their designated muster stations. Crew members involved with passenger evacuation (such as those who search areas to ensure they are clear of any passengers) participate in this drill.

Once at a muster station, passengers are given emergency instructions and a demonstration of how to put on a life jacket. On a large ship, a typical drill generally lasts 30 minutes or so before passengers are released.

Ellefsen: Regulations and corporate standards for the major international cruise companies are based on countless real-life simulator tests and computer simulations that consider crowd management and human behavior.

SOLAS guidelines dictate that crew is stationed in all passenger staircases and corridors on all decks to guide the guests in the correct direction. Crowd management is a part of the mandatory courses that all crew involved in passenger evacuation must study and be qualified in.

2. Is the muster drill mandatory or optional?

Lyons: Muster drills are definitely mandatory. What does vary, however, is what individual cruise lines do to take attendance and follow up on those who are not there. Not all lines use an emergency system that relies upon an actual roll call; instead, they have crew search all areas of the ship. If nobody is found, then everyone must be in the muster stations. In that scenario, a roll call will not be taken. (In a real situation, however, it is likely their method of searching would also be supplemented by an actual roll call.)

Some lines that take roll calls and identify those who skipped the drill will hold a special meeting or drill the next morning; other cruise lines simply ignore the fact that you didn't attend.

Crowd management and keeping track of the whereabouts of several thousand people is one of the most difficult emergency duties -- any new technology that helps crew quickly figure out who is where will likely be implemented. (For instance, during the Star Princess fire, a full accounting of the more than 3,800 people onboard took seven hours.)

3. How do you know where your muster station is located?

Lyons: In each cabin, you will find an emergency notice giving an explanation of where it is and a route you can take (along with an alternate route in case the first is blocked) to get to your station. Also, there will be internationally mandated signs with arrows to lead you from your cabin to the muster stations. Low-level lighting will also come on to help guide you to your muster station -- no matter where you are on the ship, arrows will lead you to a deck where muster stations are located.

Perhaps most significantly, however, there will be crew members positioned at the stairways to ensure that passengers proceed directly, and in an orderly manner, to their muster stations. Even if you don't know where your muster station is, a crew member will direct you to the deck where muster stations are located. Once there, other crew members can guide you to your specific muster station.

It is also likely your muster station is indicated on your life jacket, allowing crew to simply look at your life jacket to direct you. Crew members can also look up the muster station you are assigned to when you give them your cabin number.

4. Most muster drills ask that passengers wear life jackets, though not all cruise lines seem to require that. What is the international standard?

Lyons: There is no international protocol. However, the vast majority of drills will definitely require you to at least carry your life jacket to a drill (assuming the life jacket is stored in your cabin). SOLAS does require that the instructions displayed in a cabin must inform passengers of 1) their muster station 2) essential actions they must take in an emergency and 3) the method of donning life jackets.

Ellefsen: SOLAS requires only that passengers are instructed how to use the life vest, but SOLAS guidelines do not require that they put them on. However, Royal Caribbean, for example, demands that passengers put them on during drills, as Royal Caribbean has an "above compliance" policy.

5. Are life jackets typically located in passengers' cabins?

Lyons: There is no requirement for life jackets to be located specifically in passenger cabins; the requirements simply state how many life jackets there must be onboard and that they must be placed "so as to be readily accessible and their position shall be plainly indicated."

Royal Caribbean is the first major line to store life jackets at muster stations rather than in cabins on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas. It would not surprise me to see this as a growing trend in the future.

6. How many life jackets are on each cruise ship?

Lyons: SOLAS requires that there be life jackets for every person carried on board, in addition to 5% of the total number of people on board. The additional 5% of life jackets must be stowed on deck or at muster stations. In reality, there is usually greater than 5% additional capacity, however. Cruise lines base the total number on the highest possible capacity -- as if every third and fourth berth were filled.

In addition, life jackets may be found in the ship's lifeboats that are designated as tenders, resulting in several hundred more life jackets available beyond the SOLAS requirements. Crew members usually have specific emergency duties to retrieve extra life jackets from their storage location (or empty cabins) and distribute them as needed at a muster station.

7. Should you plan to retrieve your life jacket only if you are near your cabin?

Lyons: There are no hard and fast rules about when you should and when you should not return to your cabin to get a life jacket; it will always depend on the type and location of an emergency. For instance, if there is a fire on your ship, but at the completely opposite end of the ship from where your cabin is, then fire doors and boundaries will mean it is perfectly safe for you to go to your cabin. If your cabin is near the fire and there is the potential for smoke, then crew will block access to those cabins and you shouldn't attempt to go anywhere near the fire. (Generally, while scary, fires often give plenty of time to abandon ship if necessary due to the ability to restrict the fire to a relatively small portion of the ship through fire zones.)

The same is true of groundings or breaches of hull; the best course depends on the nature of the emergency. If your cabin is located on the lowest deck and water has quickly reached that level, crew should be in place to prevent you getting anywhere near it. The Costa Concordia accident involved a very significant breach in the hull, causing the ship to list very quickly. However, most situations would entail a much slower rising of water, giving you plenty of time to get your life jacket.

There is probably only one universal "best thing to do" -- pay attention to announcements from the crew and what crew members positioned around the ship tell you. A well-managed ship will be able to quickly have crew in their emergency duties, and announcements and radio communication will quickly tell them which areas of the ships are off-limits. If they say to not go to your cabin, don't try it!

8. Should you always take the stairs and avoid the elevators?

Almost every emergency announcement will advise you to take stairs over the elevators. Elevators can become trapped in the case of a power failure, not an impossible scenario in a major grounding or in an engine room fire. Plus, crew members will be positioned at stairways and can assist with mobility issues, uncertainty as to where your muster station is, or any other problems that develop.

UPDATE: Cruise Lines Adopt New Muster Drill Policy