NTSB blasts cruise lines on fire safety

WASHINGTON -- A National Transportation Safety Board official criticized major cruise suppliers July 11 for not immediately implementing recommendations it made on smoke-detector systems in a report NTSB issued in 1997.

Officials of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), representing 17 major cruise operators, said the recommendations, as written, "could result in adverse operational and technical consequences that could conflict with safety systems and procedures" on cruise ships.

"The No. 1 concern that [the NTSB] has with regard to cruise ship safety is fire," said Jim Hall, NTSB's chairman, at Tuesday's meeting. Hall said cruise companies "really have failed to deal in good faith" regarding cruise-ship fires.

Hall referred to an April, 1997 NTSB report that recommended foreign-flag ships should install automatic smoke alarms that sound locally in crew and passenger accommodation areas on cruise ships.

The NTSB report contends that locally sounding alarms will allow crews and passengers to receive immediate warning of the presence of smoke and will have the maximum available time to escape in the event of fire.

In a statement released following the meeting, ICCL said that while "the safety of passengers and crew onboard ICCL vessels is of paramount importance," the smoke detectors currently installed in passenger and crew cabins and public areas aboard foreign-flag ships are designed to sound in control rooms and the ship's bridge, from where fire-supression and emergency procedures are directed, which ICCL says is the safest option available.

"These systems and procedures, already in place, are intended to allow the ship's crew to properly direct passenger response to an emergency situation and pass critical information to the crew and passengers," said ICCL.

"There are technical and operational drawbacks to literally complying with NTSB's recommendations," said Michael Crye, an ICCL spokesman contacted by Travel Weekly on July 12. Crye said ICCL's technical committee currently is working with organizations including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the U.S. Coast Guard, in addition to cruise industry safety and technical experts, "To seek the best solution to maximize safety and minimize unwanted ramifications and unnecessary panic and disruption." Several ships have been fitted with test systems for evaluation, according to ICCL.

ICCL says individually sounding smoke detectors on cruise ships have the potential to create dangerous situations. "Because of smoke detector sensitivity, passenger ships with literally thousands of smoke detectors experience false alarms," said the ICCL statement.

"If passengers and crew were alerted to each false alarm, they would quickly become accustomed to the sounding of the alarm and may not respond properly in the event of an actual emergency."

Crye described a scenario in which a smoke detector went off in a passenger's cabin because the occupant was smoking. "The person in the cabin will ignore it because he knows the alarm went off because he was smoking," said Crye.

"But what do the people in the next cabin think? Do they respond by running down the hall, not knowing whether there's a fire or not?"

Moreover, the IMO, which Crye said has jurisdiction with regard to changes to international Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) requirements, has "previously recognized that requiring passengers to be familiar with and respond to an alarm or alarms other than the general alarm is inappropriate. There should be one alarm only for alerting all passengers and crew to an emergency."

The ICCL statement says several maritime safety experts at IMO "did not support the U.S. Coast Guard in their effort to amend Solas safety requirements to include the NTSB recommendation."

Yet while ICCL did submit a paper to the IMO pointing out drawbacks to the safety board's proposal as supported by the Coast Guard, "ICCL did not, as stated by the NTSB, oppose discussion of this important subject by the international community of maritime fire-safety experts."

"We are pledged with everyone concerned that the most safe thing for the benefit of all our passengers is being done now," said Crye. "The appropriate venue to determine [if another system can work] is the IMO, and we will continue to seek the right solution."

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