Wednesday, July 12, 2000

NTSB repeats smoke alarm plea

The National Transportation Safety Board says that cruise ship passengers "are every day placed in danger because the ships lack an important safety item, a local sounding smoke alarm.  Historically, most fire-related deaths do not result from burn injuries, but from smoke inhalation. "

The NTSB is repeating its recommendation that cruise ships install local sounding smoke alarms in both passenger and crew quarters. And it is asking ICCL (the International Council of Cruise Lines) to drop its objections to such alarms.

The NTSB first issued safety recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard aclling for these alarms in 1997, following its investigations of fires on board the Universe Explorer in 1996 and the Vistafjord in 1997. In response to these recommendations, the Coast Guard submitted a proposal to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that fire safety amendments to the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) be amended to require automatic local-sounding smoke alarms be required on passengers ships.  "Unfortunately, " says the NTSB, "the Coast Guard proposal was opposed by the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) as well as the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

Opposition to the Coast Guard's proposal focused on two propositions ­ false alarms and crowd management.  The ICCL stated that "on a daily basis there are as many as 20 or more false alarms as a result of normal sensitivity of smoke detectors."  The NTSB believes that "numerous false alarms indicate serious systemic problems that need to be corrected, regardless of the need for automatic local-sounding smoke alarms. "

With regard to the issue of crowd management, the ICCL alleges that automatic local-sounding smoke alarms will increase the risk of mass panic by passengers and impair effective crowd control by ships' crews.  The NTSB, however, says itsrecommendation did not envision the automatic sounding of the general alarm throughout the entire ship based upon the activation of a single smoke detector.  Therefore, the local alarm could not be expected to result in a mass panic situation.  Since the alarm would also sound in the centrally located and continuously manned fire control station, the crew would be immediately informed of the activated alarm and would be able to launch an appropriate response without delay.

Since issuing its 1997 safety recommendations, the NTSB has investigated three additional cruise ship fires:

  • July 20, 1998 ­ Ecstasy ­ off Miami, Florida ­ Two crewmen became trapped by smoke, and both suffered smoke inhalation injuries before they were rescued.  Three passengers were treated for smoke inhalation.  There were 2,565 passengers and 916 crew on board.
  • September 19, 1999 ­ Tropicale ­ in the Gulf of Mexico ­ A fire broke out in the engineroom.  There were no smoke inhalation injuries, probably due to the fact that the fire was restricted to the engineroom and smoke did not enter the accommodation spaces.  There were 1,096 passengers and 605 crew on board.
  • May 20, 2000 ­ Nieuw Amsterdam -- Glacier Bay, Alaska ­ A passenger was forced to crawl on his hands and knees along the passageway outside his cabin due to the heavy smoke.  There were 1,201 passengers and 566 crew on board.

The NTSB maintains that had these ships been fitted with automatic local-sounding smoke alarms, the injured individuals would have had earlier warning of smoke, would then have had more time in which to escape, and probably would not have been trapped or injured.

SAFETY RECOMMENDATIONS

As a result of the investigation of additional passenger ship fires, the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the:

Cruise Line Companies:
 
1.  Without delay, install automatic local-sounding smoke alarms in crew accommodation areas on company passenger ships so that crews will receive immediate warning of the presence of smoke and will have the maximum available escape time during a fire. 
 
2.  Without delay, install automatic local-sounding smoke alarms in passenger accommodation areas on company passenger ships so that passengers will receive immediate warning of the presence of smoke and will have the maximum available escape time during a fire. 

International Council of Cruise Lines:

3.   Withdraw your opposition to the amendment of the Safety of Life at Sea Convention chapter II-2 to require automatic local-sounding smoke alarms in crew accommodation spaces on board passenger ships and support a full discussion of the technical issues and any further U.S. Coast Guard actions on this matter before the International Maritime Organization. 

4.  Withdraw your opposition to the amendment of the Safety of Life at Sea Convention chapter II-2 to require automatic local-sounding smoke alarms in passenger accommodation spaces on board passenger chips and support a full discussion of the technical issues involved and any further U.S. Coast Guard actions on this matter before the International Maritime Organization. 

 

Stay tuned.

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