Lax regulations of cruise lines is a myth

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U.S. COAST GUARDIn recent months, the cruise industry has been the subject of much discussion -- most of it uninformed -- in the wake of a few high-profile incidents. Legislation has even been introduced in Congress that would apply yet another layer of regulation and red tape to the industry.

One of the prevailing myths behind this legislation is that the cruise industry is unregulated and unaccountable.

As former U.S. Coast Guard admirals with more than 70 years of combined service, we're in a position to report that, like other myths, this one is completely false. Throughout our careers, we had extensive experience directly overseeing ships entering or departing U.S. waters, including cruise ships, and enforcing one of the strictest maritime regulatory systems in existence.

From our firsthand experience, one thing we can say without hesitation is that the lines of authority for overseeing and enforcing cruise industry regulation are clear and robust.

Effective regulation starts with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a global regulatory body that establishes uniform international regulations for the maritime industry, covering everything from the design of ships and the training of crew members to operational safety rules and environmental protection standards. Every cruise ship in the world, regardless of where it's flagged or where it visits, must adhere to IMO regulations.

Some critics of the industry have called the IMO a paper tiger because it only adopts regulations, with no ability to enforce them. But that's a little like referring to Congress as a paper tiger because it depends on the executive branch to enforce the laws it passes.

Jim HullIn a similar fashion, the IMO relies on the Coast Guard in the U.S., and its counterparts in other flag states, to enforce its rules and regulations. In addition, any country whose ports or waters are visited by a cruise ship can enforce its own national regulations on top of all IMO regulations.

In practice, the U.S. Coast Guard enforces all international and federal safety, security and environmental regulations governing the cruise industry. This authority applies regardless of where a ship is flagged. The notion that a cruise ship can evade scrutiny by flying a non-U.S. flag is a complete falsehood.

As Coast Guard officers rise through the ranks, they receive specific training and acquire hands-on knowledge resulting in deep expertise related to the maritime industry, including cruise ship operations. By the time a Coast Guard officer achieves the position of captain of a port, he or she has typically accumulated 20 to 25 years of experience in this highly specialized field.

In order to ensure the highest levels of cruise ship safety, the Coast Guard established the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise in 2007. The center's sole purpose is to constantly raise the competence and capabilities of Coast Guard officers through continued education, training and research specific to cruise ship oversight.

Each year, every ship undergoes a comprehensive examination that enables the Coast Guard to assess both the operating condition of the ship and the capabilities of the crew. Coast Guard officials also put crews through performance tests, including fire drills, collision drills and lifeboat drills, to name a few.

Tim SullivanThese rigorous annual examinations are supplemented by periodic additional examinations and random spot inspections as ships visit U.S. ports.

During these spot inspections, the Coast Guard examines crew-training logs to ensure that crew members have thoroughly practiced their duties. In addition, pollution logs are inspected to certify that environmental standards are being met.

Of course, the Coast Guard doesn't just rubber-stamp a ship's logs; it also relies on leading technologies such as satellite surveillance and infrared technology to monitor ships in real time.

If Coast Guard inspectors find a ship or crew that fails to meet regulatory standards in any area, it can take a variety of actions. Possible penalties range from prohibiting a vessel from leaving port to imposing substantial fines for noncompliance.

Even ships operating outside U.S. waters fall under Coast Guard scrutiny. For example, any incidents involving a U.S. citizen or a ship that embarked or disembarked passengers at a U.S. port must be reported to the Coast Guard.

And it's not just the U.S. Coast Guard that enforces such regulations. Indeed, the global cruise industry is subject to aggressive regulations enforced worldwide by highly trained professionals who take their oversight responsibilities seriously.

Both of us have taken our families on cruises, and, just like every other passenger, we expect a safe, professional and fun experience. Knowing how seriously the Coast Guard views its job when it comes to cruise ship safety gives us a great deal of confidence, and we will take our families on future cruises without reservation.

While additional scrutiny of any industry is always in order, it is important for the public and policy makers to have all the facts about the strict regulatory safeguards that are in place to ensure a safe experience for cruise line passengers.

James D. Hull retired from the Coast Guard with the rank of vice admiral and currently serves as an independent consultant to numerous companies in homeland security, defense and emergency response. During his 35-year Coast Guard career, he served in several positions, culminating in his role as commander of the Atlantic Area and of the Maritime Defense Zone Atlantic.

Tim Sullivan retired from the Coast Guard in 2011 with the rank of rear admiral and is now a principal at Cutterman, a maritime consulting and communications company. In his 36 years with the Coast Guard he served as commander in charge of Coast Guard Force readiness, deputy commander of Pacific Area, as well as commander of the First U.S. Coast Guard District (Boston).

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