Shipboard Emergencies - 1000 Miles From Nowhere

Shipboard emergencies can happen anywhere at any time, and an immediate crew response is critical to a successful outcome. When deployed, crew members of various vessels do not have the same response capabilities or backup as land-based fire and police departments. There are thousands of vessels of all types on the waterways and oceans of the world. Crew members need to be prepared to handle all types of dangers that can threaten their type of vessel – including fires, floods, hazmat incidents, or medical emergencies – regardless of the vessel’s location. Because of a ship’s changing and often remote location, shipboard emergencies require a quick response that must usually be handled exclusively by crew members.

Crew members of cargo vessels, large yachts, and cruise ships are required to complete a number of safety-related training es based on their own responsibilities on the vessel. Crew members, regardless of vessel type, are required to attend STCW (Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping) training sessions and refresher training. The International Convention on STCW sets the training standards (through the International Maritime Organization – IMO) for crew members worldwide.

The convention standards were originally adopted in 1978, put into force in 1984, and updated in 1995. Before the major changes incorporated in 1995, fire or flood problems on vessels could rapidly escalate into major disasters, and even small fires could spread quickly through large cargo and cruise ships – frequently causing major damage and the loss of numerous lives.

The newest revision of the convention standards (Manila Amendments) went into effect in January 2012. The new standards expand into areas beyond shipboard safety per se and include work and rest restrictions, security-related training, changes to refresher training and medical training, and new blood alcohol limits. The basic training required for all vessels is typically the same, but there are a number of additional training requirements depending on such variables as the type of vessel, company procedures, and/or union rules and requirements.

Cruise Line & Shore-Side Responses

In many respects, cruise lines are much like floating cities, and are “governed” in accordance with a plethora of crew certification and training requirements – including a number of additional safety and security trainings for cruise-ship personnel. Some of these requirements are mandated exclusively by the U.S. government, while a number of others are designated by foreign governments and the IMO. As a general rule, cruise lines do more non-required training and have more cutting-edge capabilities “than most other types of vessels,” according to Ted Morley, the Chief Operations Officer at Maritime Professional Training (based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) and a Master Unlimited Mariner himself. The ship’s personnel “often receive advanced training in medical emergencies, and most ships carry a doctor and a number of nurses. Moreover, the ship’s security teams receive advanced training from the Coast Guard, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Patrol], local law enforcement, and security specialists. Moreover, the ships carry some of the most advanced medical equipment – and firefighting equipment as well,” Morley continued. Finally, he said, “Cruise lines are moving toward mirroring their response operations to an ICS-related model similar to [those used by] shore-side emergency response agencies.”

The adaptation of the federally mandated Incident Command Systems (ICS) into shipboard operations also helps facilitate a coordinated shore-side response if an incident on a cruise ship occurs while the ship is in port. “Shore-side response agencies need help from shipboard personnel when they respond to emergencies onboard ship,” Morley pointed out, “because the [ship’s] personnel know their ship better than the shore-side response agency [does].” Local agencies and shipboard response personnel should coordinate their training to deal more effectively with dangerous emergencies.

Shipboard training requirements have also changed since the major overhaul of the STCW in 1995, according to Amy Beavers, the Managing Director and Vice President of Regulatory Compliance at Maritime Professional Training. “There is more accountability with the training since the changes in 1995,” she said. Crew members must now demonstrate the basic skills needed to deal with dangerous incidents. “They had room time and exams before 1995. Now they are also required to demonstrate [that] they understand the concepts. For example, they actually have to don the firefighting equipment in a simulator and fight a fire; they have to don their life jackets and get into the life raft in the [training] pool, which was not required before 1995.”

“There are a number of skills they must now demonstrate, whereas before they just sat through lectures,” she added. “That was the major change with STCW of 1995 and also a major turning point in ship design and construction.”

All evidence suggests that, through improved training requirements and improved ship design and construction standards, the number of fatal ship incidents and major disasters worldwide has decreased significantly since 1995. In short, partially because of better construction, but also because of improved training, modern cargo and cruise ships are more capable than ever before of preventing catastrophic damage and/or a major loss of life due to fires and floods.

An encouraging side effect also worth mentioning is that the number of life-threatening medical emergencies involving crew members has also decreased – on both cargo and cruise ships – partly because of the advanced level of training now available, and required, but also because of the more rigorous screening of potential crew members. “Crew members on cargo vessels receive much better medical screening to determine their level of fitness for sea duty,” Beavers commented. By improving the screening methods, and being much more aware of possible medical problems, there are fewer medical issues while a ship is at sea.

Despite several recent groundings and other disasters, shipboard emergencies are not as common today as they were in the early days of maritime operations. Today’s ships are better designed, and are built to survive major at-sea disasters that in years past might well have been fatal to all hands and to the ship itself. However, accidents and disasters can still happen. Being able to deal with an emergency situation before it escalates out of control requires that crew members be ready to respond to all potential hazards both quickly and effectively. As equipment and personnel change, all crew members must be trained to ensure that they not only possess the right equipment but also know how to use it. When there is no backup, and/or if the backup response is days away, a well-trained crew that responds quickly is the best and often only way to mitigate the damage and minimize the loss of life.

For more information on:

The Manila Amendments to the STCW Convention, click on

Maritime Professional Training, click on

Corey Ranslem

Corey D. Ranslem, chief executive officer of Secure Waters Security Group Inc. – a maritime-security and consulting firm heavily involved in maritime training, maritime security, and a broad spectrum of other security programs in the maritime field – is the former regional manager of Federal Government Operations for Smiths Detection. He has received numerous awards and citations from the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies and organizations active in the field of maritime security. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Political Science from the University of Northern Iowa and an MBA in International Business from Georgetown University; he has almost 18 years of experience in maritime law enforcement and security.



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