British safety panel offers lifeboat alternative

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Lifeboats on cruise ships could be replaced by new technology on future vessels, according to members of a safety panel set up by the British coast guard.

At a session during the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention here, officials said ships could be designed to stage an emergency evacuation from an enclosed "safety deck," near the water line.

Instead of conventional lifeboats, the safety deck would hold much larger escape craft, called "detachable safety modules," poised to slide into the water when needed.

The proposals were made by cruise-ship designer John McNeece, head of the London design firm with the same name, and John Rugg, group manager for passenger ships of the U.K.'s Lloyd's Register, one of the industry's leading classification societies.

McNeece and Rugg belong to a six-member Innovation Group appointed last year by the U.K.'s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to devise new designs for cruise-ship safety, without regard to current regulations or practices.

Stephen Payne, senior naval architect and project coordinator for Carnival Corp., also is a member of the group.

Last year, the MCA submitted the safety deck concept to the International Maritime Organization, which is considering innovative approaches to safety that could be developed over the long term.

At Seatrade, Rugg pointed to potential confusion and stress under the current emergency system, particularly from what he called "contra-traffic."

He was referring to passengers rushing downstairs from higher decks to collect lifejackets or to find missing family members, while others are rushing upstairs to muster stations carrying or wearing bulky lifejackets.

With a dedicated safety deck, passengers in an emergency would head in one direction -- to the designated deck, where lifejackets and thermal clothing would be stowed.

McNeece said the safety deck would be a highly insulated space, with independent electrical and ventilation systems, where passengers could wait out an emergency in relative comfort.

The detachable safety modules, which would line both sides of the deck, would carry 250 to 500 persons, compared to the lifeboat maximum of 150, he said.

Once doors in the hull are raised, the modules would travel down to the water on a retractable slide and guide system, he said.

McNeece emphasized that the proposals are only at the concept stage and would require research and testing.

The two officials urged the industry to fund an independent group to study this and other proposals.

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