Lessons Learned from the Costa Concordia

The recent Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster provides a number of lessons for cruise travelers, including some common sense reminders about travel safety, whether you are traveling by boat, train or plane, or just staying at your favorite resort hotel. No matter how good the service and how many stars come with the accommodations, you still need to be ready to take charge of your own safety in case of an emergency.

The sinking of the Costa Concordia on January 13 is an extreme case. The international cruise ship industry accommodates more than 16 million passengers each year, and with a few exceptions, cruise ships are incredibly safe, largely because there are rigorous safety regulations in place to protect passengers. In this case, there were a number of human errors that led to the disaster that claimed 16 lives, including ignoring safety regulations.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulates ship safety procedures and requires that all passengers receive a lifeboat drill within 24 hours of departure. In the case of the Costa Concordia, a drill was held after leaving Savona but no drill was held for the 600 passengers who boarded later at Rome. Evacuation of the sinking cruise liner was further complicated by the fact that the ship lost power and starting listing so quickly. Regulations state that systems should be online for three hours following a disaster, and passengers should have 30 minutes to evacuate. The captain delayed issuing orders for an evacuation even though he knew the hull had been breached. In the Concordia’s case the ship listed so quickly after the captain finally issued evacuation orders, that at least half the lifeboats became useless. And finally, the fact the crew issued contradictory messages in languages that could not be understood by all the passengers created even more chaos.

These are the times when you have to take responsibility for your own safety. Whether you are on a sinking cruise liner or in a burning hotel, there are a number of proactive steps you can take to ensure your safety. Here are just a few that come to mind:

• Pay attention to the muster drill – The muster drill on a cruise ship is akin to a safety briefing on an airplane. The crew is required to deliver the information for your own protection. If you are a frequent flyer, as I am, you tend to ignore the safety briefing after a while, but then I always check for the obvious safety procedures – is the nearest exit behind me? Do I have a life vest under my seat or a flotation cushion? Is there anything different about this plane’s configuration I should note? The safety drill is even more important on a cruise ship, since it is much larger. Pay attention and give your full attention, even if you are a frequent cruise traveler. The refresher could save your life.

• Know the ship – Instructions on where to report in the event of an evacuation are typically posted on the back of your cabin door. Regardless of whether they have held a drill or not, you should check the instructions and the diagram to see where to go in an emergency. When you check into a hotel, do you look at the fire escape plan on the back of the door, or check the floor plan for the nearest stairwell exit? You should, just as you should get to know your ship. Determine the best way to get the deck and where your muster station is, as well as where the nearest lifeboats are. Also remember to find a companionway; an elevator can fail if there is a power outage.

• Lifejackets – Know where the nearest lifejackets are at all times. Be sure to put on your own lifejacket before you assist others.

• Listen to instructions – Recognize when there is an emergency. The normal shipboard signal for evacuation is seven short horn blasts followed by one long blast. If you hear that, follow instructions and head to the nearest evacuation point.

• Lighting – One of the problems with the Costa Concordia was the loss of power. All of the interior cabins were plunged into darkness, making escape much more difficult. You can’t rely on emergency lighting, so carry your own light with you whenever possible. I always carry a miniature flashlight on my keychain in case of emergency, and it’s amazing how often I use it.

• Passports and ID – Another problem that the passengers on the Costa Concordia faced after the crisis is they didn’t have their papers. Many of the passengers had surrendered their passports when they boarded the ship. Although this may seem a convenience for the passengers, you don’t want to be caught in an emergency or in a foreign country without your passport. Keep it with you and safe at all times. If the check-in crew needs a copy of your current passport, then tell them you will wait while they copy it. Don’t surrender your passport. Try to keep it with you at all times. I also make a color copy of the inside page of my passport (the one with my picture and passport number.) I store this in a separate place from my passport with an extra passport photo. If I lose my passport, this copy and the photo makes it very easy to get a replacement at an embassy.

All of these safety tips seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how much common sense goes out the window when you are caught up in the excitement of a trip. Taking a moment to prepare for the worst before you depart (including reviewing your travel insurance plan you bought from TripInsurance.com) will promote peace of mind and give you a level of preparedness that your fellow travelers may not have.

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