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Rest assured: safety at sea


5 March 2012


Ensuring ship security without invading guest privacy is a challenge. Andrea Ashfield finds out where the balance lies.


Since 11 September 2001, the issue of security across the travel industry has changed enormously, with new practices and procedures designed to ensure passenger safety. For the cruise industry, this has included the introduction of state-of-the-art surveillance technology to help safeguard access to ships; however, while most guests find these visible safety measures a reassuring presence, operators realise there is a fine line to tread between security and passenger privacy.

While major security breaches generate headlines, operators are keen to emphasise that cruising is one of the safest modes of transportation available to holidaymakers.

A report published by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) emphasises that the industry has gone to great lengths to protect the 12 million passengers it carries each year, and that serious problems are rare.

According to CLIA, a cruise ship can be compared to a secure building with a 24-hour security guard, with access that can be strictly enforced.

"Cruise lines have always had good security," says Birger Vorland, vice-president of nautical operations at Crystal Cruises. "The most important consideration is access control, and making sure that everybody gets on and off in an orderly and efficient manner, while prohibiting those who should not have access. This is our main focus on a daily basis."

"Seasoned travellers are familiar with the type of security requirements we use. It provides peace of mind for each individual, so they don't need to worry."

Crystal Cruises also has measures in place to deal with passengers engaging in criminal activity.

"We have security in place to deal with any incidents involving unruly passengers, which we have very few of," he adds. Vorland believes today's passengers appreciate the need for onboard surveillance.

"Unless people have been sleeping in class, they will know that this is the way it is now," he says. "After the 9/11 terror attacks, there was a boost in security everywhere, and that hasn't stepped down; however, now we do it more efficiently and seasoned travellers are very familiar with the type of security requirements we use. It provides peace of mind for each individual, so they don't need to worry."

Charlie Mandigo, head of fleet security at Holland America Line, agrees that while attitudes have changed recently, safety has always been a major priority for the cruise industry. "I think the way we do our job and the regulations have changed somewhat over the years - the process does evolve," he says. "However, security officers and functions have been on ships for decades, so I don't want to leave the impression that we only recently focused on security."

Reassuring presence

Mandigo also thinks passengers welcome visible security checks when they board a cruise ship.

"Guests need to see measures that will reassure them, such as ID checks and X-ray machines when boarding, and officers walking around the ship and observing," he says. "We don't want to be intrusive - so many things go on behind the scenes to ensure a safe cruise - however, it is a good thing for passengers to see some activity to reassure everyone."

Vorland agrees that passengers' fears can be assuaged by proactive security, but he also thinks it is important to be as efficient as possible.

"People want to see it, but they don't want to be inconvenienced," he says. "If you get too strict, people get annoyed, so it is a fine balance. The main thing we are selling on a cruise ship is safety and security, so that is our focus."

Drawing a line between safety and intrusiveness is also an issue, particularly given the industry's increasing use of surveillance technology. Measures such as CCTV, face-recognition software and biometric screening can be used to detect an unauthorised person, locate a missing guest or serve as a general deterrent to crime, yet their use may also raise questions surrounding privacy. Despite this, Vorland believes the majority of guests accept these safety measures as a necessity, and one that will not affect their enjoyment of the cruise.

"The majority of guests accept these safety measures as a necessity, and one that will not affect their enjoyment of their cruise."

"I think 99% of people realise it is a daily fact of life," he says. "There are certain accepted rules in society and, regrettably, security is a big part of that. Most people accept that airport security and cruise port areas are equally strict."

Once passengers have passed through security when boarding, they can relax in the knowledge that the cruise ship is a safe, protected environment. "It's worth remembering that once people get through access control, they will have no contact with anything related to security, as long as they behave well," says Vorland. "The fact that we have such good procedures in place should make the atmosphere even more enjoyable than in the past."

Mandigo agrees that using surveillance technology is necessary in order to maintain passenger safety. "The tools we have today are more sophisticated, so we can apply them to our tasks," he adds. "Cameras, X-ray machines, key cards and computer tracking all help us to do this job more efficiently."

Day trippers

If the ship itself is a relatively secure environment, then looking after passengers when they visit the shore is another matter, and cruise operators are keen to ensure that a similar level of safety is maintained at all times.

"Scheduled ports are monitored on a continuing basis through many sources and liaisons with government agencies in both the US and abroad," explains Mandigo. "Should there be indications of shoreside issues that may impact the security and safety of passengers for a cruise, an onsite assessment may be conducted. Also, there is extensive liaison between operators with regard to security considerations. If another cruise line has had a recent port call in an upcoming destination for Holland America Line, we are cooperative to the point where we contact that operator to find out about their experience."

Crystal Cruises also encourages its guests to be vigilant when they leave the ship. "We feel responsible for advising them as best we can when we get to unfamiliar destinations," he says. "We do remind people to be cautious when it comes to going off independently in ports, and we try to prepare guests for each destination so they can have an enjoyable experience."

Muster crackdown

On 9 February 2012, the global cruise industry announced a new emergency drill policy requiring mandatory muster for embarking passengers prior to departure from port. Put forward by the CLIA, the European Cruise Council and the Passenger Shipping Association, with the support of their member cruise lines, it has been voluntarily initiated and is effective immediately.

Under the new guidelines, on rare occasions when passengers arrive after the muster has been completed, they will be promptly provided with individual or group safety briefings. The new policy exceeds existing legal requirements. Current laws for conducting a muster of passengers under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) mandate that a muster for passengers occurs within 24 hours of embarkation.

This policy follows the 27 January announcement of a Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review in response to the Costa Concordia incident. The review includes a comprehensive assessment of the critical human factors and operational aspects of maritime safety. As best practices are identified, they will be shared among cruise industry association members, the IMO, EU and other governmental authorities.

The issue of muster drills is particularly sensitive following the Concordia tragedy and Costa's alleged failure to conduct drills prior to its sinking. In early February, Holland America hit the headlines after a passenger on the Westerdam was made to debark in Port Everglades, US, for 'non-compliance' during the mandatory drill.

Ongoing development

By working together, Vorland believes cruise lines can constantly review and improve their security practices.

"Crystal is part of a CLIA security committee, which meets every 60 days to review situations, new products and regulations."

"The cruise industry works very closely together when it comes to the technical aspects of running a ship," he explains. "We are part of a CLIA security committee, which meets every 60 days to review situations, new products, regulations and so on. There is a constant focus on developing and improving our security measures."

Rather than intruding on privacy, Vorland argues that increased security will reassure guests. "We want to make sure they have a safe and enjoyable experience in a controlled environment," he says.

Holland America also constantly reviews and updates its security practices. "It is one of our chief concerns," says Mandigo. "If we don't make security a top priority, we run the risk of not being a viable business. Our aim is to deliver once-in-a-lifetime vacation experiences, all the time. Behind the scenes, ship security contributes to this mission and our guests need to feel comfortable when making vacation choices."