Coast Guard proposes new rule on cruise ship security


A proposed rule is underway attempting to improve safety and security for Americans on cruise ships.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s proposal addresses issues such as systems to detect or record falls overboard, crime prevention and criminal evidence-gathering, response to and treatment of sexual assaults, height of deck rails and security guides.

The rulemaking started with the passage of the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 (CVSSA), signed by President Obama. The rule implements the bill by amending passenger vessel regulations. The bill’s requirements apply to ships that sleep at least 250 passengers and that pick up or drop off passengers in the United States. It does not apply to vessels making coastal trips.

In passing that bill, Congress determined that sexual and physical assault were the top crimes investigated on cruise ships by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the previous five-year period. In addition, passengers can disappear from vessels and don’t understand their vulnerability to crime on cruise ships. They lack information about their legal rights or whom they contact after a crime. It is difficult for crime investigators to look into and document  crime scenes aboard vessels. Getting reliable data is difficult because multiple countries are involved when a crime occurs at sea.

Many of the provisions of the bill are already in place and have been part of Coast Guard safety inspections. Examples include requirements for 42-inch-high deck-edge guard rails, peep holes, security latches and time-sensitive keys in every passenger and crew cabin and a security guide for passengers. There is a requirement for communication access for sexual assault victims including a private phone line and a computer with Internet access. Specific supplies and training must exist for medical staff responding to sexual assaults and limiting crew access to passenger rooms.

According to the proposal, 147 cruise vessels will be impacted with a cost to the industry and government of $79.1 million over 10 years. 

In 2013, 21.3 million people worldwide took cruises. Almost 11 million of those were Americans, according to Elinore Boeke, spokeswoman for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). This organization, which represents nearly 60 major cruise lines worldwide, declined to comment on specifics of the latest proposal.

 “We appreciate the Coast Guard putting forward this proposed rule for review, and CLIA and its members are evaluating it in detail,” Boeke said.

William Doherty, director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group and ex-safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines, said the law is weak, with shortfalls in enforcement, financing and prosecution. 

“The rules are based on a sloppy foundation,” Doherty said. “There are no enforcement teeth in the law.”

Several specific sections of the proposed rule have raised concerns. One major issue is that the proposed training course for crime scene investigation is too short, according to some critics. The rule would require at least one crewmember to be trained in crime prevention, detection, evidence preservation and reporting. The U.S. Maritime Administration has begun certifying companies that will provide this training. This crewmember can be a mariner or a vessel security officer, but this is not a requirement.

A model course developed in 2011 by the Coast Guard, FBI and the U.S. Merchant Maritime Academy specifies eight objectives for students: to identify ways of preventing and detecting potential crimes; develop knowledge of emergency procedures; recognize security and safety risks; learn techniques used to evade security systems; recognize, without discrimination, the characteristics and behavior of those who might be security and safety threats; understand the responsibilities of law enforcement, vessel security officers and medical staff; secure a crime scene until law enforcement officers take over; and understand reporting requirements to document serious crimes. The course described is scheduled for eight hours. Recertification would be required every two years.

Coast Guard personnel gather at a railing during a cruise ship inspection at Juneau, Alaska, in 2012. The new regulations call for higher, safer rails to prevent falls overboard.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

“It is absurd that you can teach somebody in eight hours” the skills needed for this position, said Ross Klein, a professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who writes and testifies about cruise ship safety. Klein is concerned that this training is not enough for crime victims to make a strong legal case. 

“The people who are doing security work need to be trained as security professionals and their work needs to stand up in a court of law,” Klein said.

“We believe that the instruction is adequate to meet its intended objective,” said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Jason Kling. “We understand that some suggest that the scope should be broader to encompass law enforcement duties/responsibilities/authorities that could adversely affect a criminal investigation.”

Another issue is how crews should detect people falling overboard. The proposed rule gives cruise companies three options. They can use image capture systems, such as video or thermal technology, to record any person falling overboard; a system that immediately detects overboard falls and sounds an alarm; or a combination of the two methods. Man-overboard detection systems use combinations of thermal cameras, radar and infrared sensors and video analysis to detect a fall and alert the crew right away.

The notice of proposed rulemaking states that, based on responses from CLIA, the industry will predominantly use image capture systems. “However, the technology to reliably detect persons or objects as they are in the process of going overboard is not readily available for use at sea,” the rule states. 

Jamie Barnett, president of International Cruise Victims (ICV), said the technology is ready and the Coast Guard did not contact the five companies that submitted proposals for man-overboard detection systems. 

“It is apparent from the proposed regulation’s language that the technology does not need to capture an image, but must detect the event and sound an alarm,” Barnett wrote in a letter to a U.S. congressman. 

When asked why the Coast Guard did not independently check the reliability of the new systems, Kling said, “The Coast Guard does not have the expertise to assess these products.”

Another concern is whether cruise ships that make short stays in the U.S. are covered by the proposed rule. “Any cruise ship that leaves from or arrives in the United States must be covered by the CVSSA with no exceptions as suggested in the proposed regulations,” said Kendall Carver, chairman of ICV. “Any contact with a U.S. port — U.S. residents should be subject to the act.” Carver fears that cruise ships might use this exception to avoid the law.

However, exempting those vessels does not apply to American passengers. “Temporary ports of call would be best described as those where people are not checking into or out of their cruise ship,” said Kling. 

By Professional Mariner Staff