There are many challenges for the safe evacuation of the world’s two largest cruise ships, each of which can carry up to 8,754 passengers and crew.
The international regulations titled Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) dictate a timetable for evacuation.
“There are strict standards for lifeboats and their deployment which require them to be loaded and launched within 30 minutes of a signal to abandon ship,” said David Peikin, spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association. “Larger ships are no exception.”
However, some industry observers feel this is unrealistic. “I do not think it is possible to safely evacuate this many people in that short a time,” said maritime lawyer Jim Walker, who also writes the blog Cruise Law News.
For one thing, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas have large lifeboats. Each lifeboat accommodates 370 passengers, a significant increase from the 150 that has been the industry standard.
“First of all, how are you going to get them in lifeboats?” said William Doherty, director of maritime relations at Nexus Consulting Group. “(Cruise ships) run drills, but they don’t run them at 3 a.m. with passengers drunk.”
Even when drills are run, passengers often don’t take them seriously. “The complacency of the passengers is unbelievable,” said Clark Dodge, a Hawaii-based passenger vessel safety consultant. “In something like this on these big ships — it’s scary. I see some terrible errors made.”
Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Ltd., said evacuation procedures for Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas include some unique improvements.
“These procedures include larger lifeboats, centrally located life jackets at the muster stations, and an electronic mustering system for accountability,” she said. “With our advanced lifeboat design, positioning of the boats on the embarkation decks, and procedures, we would be able to evacuate all guests and crew in a minimum amount of time.”
The evacuation from cruise ships is hazardous, Walker said. He noted that the International Maritime Organization, which regulates international shipping, changed the rules for evacuation drills to allow lifeboats to be lowered with no people in them, because of injuries to crew that occurred during drills. On Feb. 10, 2013, five crewmembers were killed and three injured in a lifeboat drill in port on the cruise ship Thomson Majesty.
There is another major challenge: “What do you do with people in the water once they get into lifeboats?” Doherty said. “How many days do you think those people are going to be in the lifeboat? How are you going to get them out of the lifeboat? No one has ever taken a look at this.”