People have been working to increase ship safety and protocol for as long as they’ve been able to sail. This focus has, for the longest time, been based around engineering stronger and more durable ships. We’ve added lifeboats and water tight compartments, but little focus has been put into the human side of things. As we’ve seen, the Costa Concordia demonstrates that no amount of engineering can stop a ship from sinking.
One thing that we have learned though, is that while our ships keep getting better the passengers onboard the Costa Concordia experienced scenes right out of the movie Titanic. Crew called out for women and children first, passengers fought crew to charge the lifeboats, people broke out in fights with one another, and lifeboats were even cut down. Seems like all that’s missing is the gun fire. We can thank the stricter gun regulations for that. We know that fewer people died on a ship with a larger capacity but that can be attributed to her sinking location, so how did we make so many strides in safety over the last 100 years but still end up in a similar looking situation?
One simple word. It influenced the actions of all the passengers and clouded the judgement and effectiveness of the crew. It was around in 1912, it’s still around today, as it will be in 2112. So how can you change the mental state of an individual? It’s not like you can prepare someone to know what it feels like to be on a sinking ship, but you can work to counter the influence of the panic. Only by working to ensure that everyone’s mental state during the situation remains calm and collected can all of the advanced safety technology and protocols be effectively utilized by the passengers and crew.
This has become evident from several of the passenger and crew accounts of that evening. There were 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew onboard fearing that their lives were in danger. The difference is that the crew had to work to launch the lifeboats and ensure the passengers safety. They did not have a secure separate work area though, instead they were working with the passengers staring at them in panic as all 4,200 frantic individuals stood on the lifeboat deck. This is certainly not ideal work conditions or even pleasant conditions under any circumstance. Let’s not forget that the ship also began to list as well. Panic is like a disease. It spreads and grows. The more people are exposed to it, the more it spreads. If we make the parallel to the 1997 film Titanic, think about that scene where Rose and Jack run out on the lifeboat deck. The level of chaos and fear in everyone immediately hits you. Now imagine that space getting smaller and the number of passengers increasing and you have what the people on the Costa Concordia were met with.
There already is a possible, realistic solution though. When Royal Caribbean launched the Oasis of the Seas in November of 2009 they started a new system for how to handle a disaster in which guests no longer need to wear life vests and they gather in public venues rather than at their assigned muster station. This procedure has also been rolled out to Norwegian Epic when she launched. This was met with joy from many of the frequent guests who grew tired of the repeated muster drills but many in the marine industry viewed it as compromising safety for guests’ comfort. While Royal Caribbean’s public intentions behind the change were for guest comfort and efficiency reasons, they may have also uncovered a way to make the circumstances more efficient on a psychological level. Could this arrangement have aided in the the evacuation of the Costa Concordia?
The key change that Royal Caribbean made, is that guests are no longer on the lifeboat deck. While this sounds like a step back in safety, this makes a huge difference in efficiency. This allows for the crew to separate their duties better. They can have crew working on the lifeboat deck, preparing the lifeboats and prepping the area for guests to calmly enter the boats. They can properly, efficiently and safely do what they train so hard for. It sounds like a no-brainer, but there is a big difference between preparing a lifeboat in a drill while the ship is tied up in a port and then doing it while hundreds of panicked guests stare and yell at you, tell you that their life depends on you. On the Costa Concordia it was reported that crew couldn’t properly operate the lifeboats. That they couldn’t lower them, and then once they were in the water they had trouble starting them. Lifeboats are rigorously tested, certified, and classified. Infact, so are the crew that operate them. So why was it a scene out of Titanic where crew were using hack saws to cut lines and smashing the equipment to get things working? Panic. The level of panic that is added by that audience can be huge for some of those crew members. Their judgment could easily be compromised so that they can’t think or execute their training properly. This leads to errors in judgment and performance. All of this leads to a slower, messier evacuation process.
So what if some of the crew are left alone to work on the lifeboat deck alone? Where are the rest? This is the key part, the other part of the crew are left to attend to the comfort and safety of the guests. This is the most important part of having muster stations in separate public venues. Guests are given a large pleasant room to spread out and sit in comfortable chairs. This change removes loads of stress off an individual and allows them to keep their family close. They are no longer exposed to the chaos that is going on and have no idea if the crew is struggling or not. The venues on the Oasis have full video and audio support so the captain can even make video messages to the guests to try and keep them informed and comforted. You are essentially trying to coddle the guests. Just read this review of a muster drill on the Carnival Triumph in New Orleans. It is important that they stay informed of what is going on to ensure they feel as though someone is in charge and they are working to make sure that they are safely evacuated but they don’t need to hear and see all of the stress and work going on behind that message. For a passenger to know that the crew struggled to lower their lifeboat would in no way get them to safety quicker and it’s been proven that the image of panic can have a lasting impact on the their mental and physical health throughout the ordeal. All of that stress and panic can also lead them to start confrontations that they wouldn’t have under a more reasonable circumstance.
Through all of the encounters that passengers of the Costa Concordia have revealed, the key moment that led to pure panic and that “everyman for themselves” mentality was the same on the Titanic, they were both told their lifeboat wasn’t available. On the Titanic it was because there weren’t enough but on the Costa Concordia it was because the ship’s list had become too great to lower them from one side of the ship safely. The statement is still not true though because every passenger and crew member should be able to evacuate from a single side of the ship. For all the passenger’s on that side of the Concordia though they believed that they were going to be safe. They were standing their staring at a lifeboat that they’ve been told was their ticket to survival and then someone told them it wouldn’t arrive. In their minds they had just been told that they were going down with the ship and that is why the majority of them jumped overboard and swam for land. Had all those passengers been in a separate space away from the lifeboat preparations they wouldn’t know their lifeboat wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t have a connection that a specific boat is theirs and that another one is not.
When they could no longer evacuate from the side of the ship the crew was preparing for them, they could simply move to the other side and start preparing inflatable lifeboats or ladders to rescue craft as in this video. The guests could then be called up to board their lifeboat, oblivious to the fact that it was not theirs, and in their mind, would still be boarding a lifeboat to survival as originally intended.
In the end, it comes down to this: a calm and more controlled lifeboat deck, as well as the more relaxed passengers, are able to increase the speed and efficiency of the evacuation process enough to justify the few extra feet that the passengers have to walk to reach their lifeboat.
On the Concordia, the lifeboat embarkation stations are located on a deck, entirely comprised of public areas.
Surely they could wait there. Until the situation is tested in real life conditions no one will know for sure. Even then, elements such as the nationality and experience level of the crew, along with the condition of the ship, can have a significant impact on everyone’s panic level. The only way a ship evacuation can go as efficiently as it does in all the drills and theorized planning, is if you can get everyone’s panic level down to as close of a normal level as possible. Perhaps it’s time the industry started investing money into studying the psychology of a disaster and how to manipulate it instead of engineering new technologies we can’t effectively use when needed.
Derek is the founder of myCruiseView. The site is still under construction. You can sign up for updates on its progress at his site.