Recent history tells us that every fire aboard a cruise ship triggers a fine-tuning of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, and November 2010’s engine-room blaze aboard the 113,000t Carnival Splendor will be no different.

The fire occurred off Punta San Jacinto, Mexico, on the first leg of a seven-day cruise out of Long Beach in California, US. The results of an investigation into the incident had not been released at the time of writing, but preliminary information suggests it will result in an all-points bulletin to the cruise ship community, advising them to overhaul, if nothing else, their firefighting instruction manuals. According to leaked documents, sections of the manual did not apply to Splendor; some of it was confusingly translated and some diagrams bore little resemblance to the reality, in particular to the firefighting control panel. The full report can only serve to improve fire-control procedures.

However, contradictory as it may seem, the blaze aboard Splendor can also be seen as a feather in the cap of Carnival and the wider industry’s pursuit of safety at sea. There were no fatalities, passengers were congregated in safe zones and, according to reports, crew members were able to contain the fire despite less-than-perfect procedures.

In the past few years, the industry has embraced a series of measures in response to fire events that have, say experts, greatly improved the safety of passengers and crew at sea. The result is that cruise ships have led advances in fire safety and as Ted Thompson, the International Council of Cruise Lines’ vice-president for regulatory, says, they are ‘the cream of the crop’ in terms of compliance.

Oasis sets the benchmark

The bar is being raised all the time. Royal Caribbean International’s latest flagship, the 6,360-passenger, Oasis-class Allure of the Seas, launched in December, and it embodies the latest, exacting safety standards that have applied since last July. According to Efthimios Mitropoulos, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the Oasis class has “gone beyond compliance” and incorporated the latest thinking in terms of the dedicated safety centre and the ‘ship as its own best lifeboat’.

“Cruise ships are ‘the cream of the crop’ in terms of fire safety compliance.”

As Mitropoulos points out, the Oasis Class sets the benchmark in several areas. While Allure‘s sister ship, Oasis of the Seas, was still on the drawing board under the codename of Genesis, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) involved the IMO in the detailed safety planning, with extremely helpful results.

“Each of her lifeboats is designed to carry 370 persons – a number which until recently constituted the full complement of a sizeable cruise ship,” the IMO secretary-general states. The Oasis class also complies with the latest rules in open-deck areas, which originate from a fire aboard Star Princess in March 2006, when a smouldering cigarette butt is thought to have ignited polyurethane deck coverings and started a blaze that burned out 100 cabins.

As a result of the subsequent enquiry, open-deck spaces must now be divided into specific zones with their own fire-detection and firefighting systems.

The high safety standards on the Oasis Class are the direct result of a global collaboration with numerous organisations, including classification society Det Norske Veritas. In a statement, RCCL said the company had worked with ‘the world’s leading marine, safety and design individuals, organisations and government agencies’. It had employed ‘the most advanced, commercially available technology’ and run through thousands of simulations to test ‘every conceivable situation’.

One of the Oasis Class’s features likely to be much copied in the future is its dedicated safety command centre. This latest version of a SOLAS-mandated zone is located alongside the bridge but separate from it. Containing comprehensive monitoring and decision-support systems, the centre will be staffed around the clock.

New SOLAS regulations

This will be a big year for cruise ships, with 22 under construction and vessels worth $4.6bn due to hit the water. All of them will comply with the much more stringent 2011 regulations that have been a work-in-progress since 2000, when the IMO began to draw up general safety guidelines for cruise ships as an individual class.

By general agreement, the SOLAS 2010 standards represent a big step forward. As well as ship-as-lifeboat, dedicated safety centres and other advances, a lesser-known improvement is in laboratory testing procedures for all materials. As an IMO spokesperson pointed out, “this is an important development for all ships, including passenger vessels, because it specifies the testing procedures required for all relevant elements of a ship’s construction, materials and so on.”

The tests, which are designed to measure non-combustibility, smoke and toxicity, apply to surface materials such as primary deck coverings, upholstered furniture, bedding, hangings and anything else that could catch fire. The regulations are also expressly designed to facilitate innovative design rather than impede it. As such, they reflect the European Commission’s desire that safety standards should not become so restrictive that European shipyards risk losing their cruise shipbuilding advantage over Asian competitors. It was considered imperative that risk-reduction concepts should be incorporated into designs from the outset, rather than added later under fixed regulations.

“Vessels such as those in the Oasis Class are being described as among the safest yet most exciting ships afloat.”

As SAFEDOR – the EU-established body that first worked on the programme – announced at the time, this was “a radical shift from the current treatment of safety [risk] as a design constraint imposed by rules and regulations”. Instead, risk-based design should “offer freedom to the designer to choose/identify optimal solutions to meet safety targets”. The result is vessels such as those in the Oasis class are being described as among the safest yet most exciting ships afloat. However, as the IMO points out, as safe as the ship may be, it’s only as good as the crew in the event of a fire – one recent report notes that 80% of marine accidents can be attributed to human factors.

Maintenance is also a crucial factor, as numerous official investigations prove. Therefore, galleys have lately become a focus of inspectors from the US Coast Guard, who perform safety audits of every cruise ship entering US waters for the first time. Deep-fat cookers, for example, must now be alarmed and equipped with extinguishers and automatic shut-offs.

But whatever is seen as the cause of a fire or other event, recommendations don’t have to wait for another round of SOLAS adjustments; instead, they are issued immediately. For instance, after last September’s explosion in the engine room of Queen Elizabeth 2 off Barcelona, operators of vessels with electric propulsion were urgently warned to inspect their harmonic filters for wear and tear. Every event is seen as a learning opportunity.