Cruise ship safety takes center stage at NTSB forum

The specter of cruise ship incidents from the past several years — and lessons learned from them — lingered over a forum Tuesday devoted to safety in the industry.

Organized by the National Transportation Safety Board, the forum at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters touched on regulation of the global industry, accident investigations and fire safety. The event continues Wednesday.

In opening remarks, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said the agency had never held a hearing on a cruise ship incident because it has jurisdiction only stretching 12 miles from shore. But she asked whether the ways the industry is regulated and investigated now “truly provide for the most robust, independent and transparent investigation of these accidents.”

“More serious accidents and incidents can only be headed off by continually seeking safety improvements,” Hersman said. “The dead weight of complacency may be one of the few things that can darken this booming industry’s bright outlook.”

Dating to the deadly Star Princess fire in 2006 and including the more recent Costa Concordia shipwreck and disabling fires aboard the Carnival Splendor and Carnival Triumph, experts touched on some aspects of what went wrong and what is being done to avoid similar disasters.

At Holland America Line, for example, which like Carnival Cruise Lines is owned by Doral-based Carnival Corp., fire suppression systems are being upgraded and power cables are being rearranged to ensure redundancy of engine rooms. Cyril Tatar, who oversees the building of new ships for the brand, said several new safety measures are being tested to better prepare crews to respond to emergencies.

On the oversight side, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Servidio said the organization had recently announced plans to conduct spot inspections without notice on ships that have a history of significant issues during exams.

“If during any of our examinations we have any concerns about a ship’s safety, we will not permit it to embark passengers until all of our concerns have been addressed,” Servidio said.

Still, concerns remained about the role of the U.S. in overseeing cruise ships, the vast majority of which are flagged outside the country and primarily inspected by their flag state.

The Coast Guard’s Kurt Heinz said that as a port state — meaning an authority that can inspect ships when they visit the country’s ports — the organization has less power than flag states.

“The problem that we have is that we are not really a big flag state in terms of ships,” Heinz said. “If we were, we would have more ability to unilaterally govern those standards.”

Hersman said she wants to see more transparency in publishing findings from NTSB investigations to the International Maritime Organization.

“We have to make sure that we’re sharing lessons learned and we’re doing so in a transparent way,” she said.

The NTSB fielded some criticism for not including advocates for victims of crime on ships or other cruise-related incidents. The International Cruise Victims Association has submitted a 51-page report to the forum’s docket.

On Tuesday, Representative Matsui (D-Calif.) issued a statement saying she was disappointed that such groups were “once again left out in the cold.”

“Only by including all parties at the table can we hope to make meaningful progress in providing passengers greater consumer protections and the resources necessary to better protect themselves on cruise vessels,” she said in the statement.

Hersman said that while “we very much respect and understand the tragedies and the very difficult experiences that they’ve been through,” the NTSB wanted to bring in those who were experts in the agency’s safety mandate.

“This is our first foray into cruise ship safety,” she said. “And I hope that it will not be our last.”

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