From 1 October 2010 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) will dictate that cruise ships must no longer be constructed using combustible materials.

The rules mean that older ships may be forced into retirement if the cost of necessary upgrades is too high. The deadline comes hot on the heels of the latest safe return to port regulations, which came into force on 1 July and require modifications in ship design that allow vessels to transport passengers and crew back to shore in the event of an emergency.

SOLAS rules

This year’s SOLAS deadline is crucial for the industry, according to Ted Thompson, senior vice-president, technical and regulatory affairs at the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

“Safety and security are CLIA priorities.”

“Safety and security are the number one priority for our members – not just passengers but crew as well,”he explains. “This is the last deadline for a whole series of amendments and is important because it is applied retrospectively to existing ships. It has forced some of the older ships out of service.”

The rules state that combustible materials must no longer be used in the construction or conversion of cruise ships; for vessels built before 1980, this may present a problem. Operators with ships constructed before this date must choose whether to upgrade or, if the cost is too great, retire vessels altogether.

“Older ships can be brought up to date in most instances,”adds Thompson. “The challenge is making sure we understand the standard. Sometimes rules are proposed that can be difficult to comply with, and as ambassadors for the cruise industry we try to get everyone to agree on the goal and then determine reasonable ways to achieve the safety objective envisioned.

“In some instances, and for some ships, the requirements and necessary changes are so extensive that it may not be economical to make the updates. These ships are often retired from international service. The application of the 1992 Fire Safety Amendments, with the final step in 2010, is not the first time this has happened.”

Fred Olsen’s Black Prince, which entered into service in 1966, is one such vessel. The 441-passenger ship was retired from service in 2009, partly because of SOLAS 2010.

Safe return to port

The safe return to port regulations also represent a challenge for the industry. “These new regulations are certainly a milestone for the advancement of cruise safety,” explains Jeffrey Lantz, director, commercial regulations and standards, at the US Coast Guard. “The emphasis of these amendments, collectively known as the 2006 Revised Passenger Ship Safety Standards, is reducing the occurrence of marine casualties and improving survivability by embracing the concept of a ship as its own best lifeboat.”

The amendments, which are the result of a safety review initiated in 2000 by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), dictate that greater emphasis should be placed on the prevention of marine casualties. Passenger ships must also be designed to withstand greater damage so that guests and crew can be returned to shore if a problem occurs. The rules will necessitate changes in ship design with new requirements including provision of safe areas, flood detection and alarm systems.

“The Coast Guard and international community, through the IMO, have expressed the importance of these changes and agreed to their implementation,”adds Lantz. “These amendments include new concepts such as the incorporation of criteria to ensure a ship can safely return after experiencing a casualty as well as flexibility so designers can create new ships while meeting safety challenges that will arise in the future.”

“These new regulations are a milestone for the advance of cruise safety.”

Fire protection is also a key part of the regulation changes. The rules state that all ships must be fitted with fixed fire detection and alarm systems. This should include manually operated call points which are capable of being remotely and individually identified.

Amendments should also be made to improve the fire safety of atriums, escape routes and ventilation systems.

In addition, systems should also be put in place for orderly evacuation and abandonment, including requirements for essential systems that will remain operational in case any one main vertical zone is unserviceable because of fire. This means that in the event of a fire, the ship should be able to return to port under its own propulsion, with safe areas provided for passengers and crew.

CLIA members get ready

Both sets of changes are crucial for the industry as a whole, but Thompson thinks CLIA members are well-prepared. “Our members are already including the safe return to port regulations in new construction to the extent practicable given the extent the work is still ongoing. They are anticipating the guidelines as they are developed and working on incorporating them even as they are discussed.”

Many operators are also expecting the impact of the regulations to be minimal. “We have the youngest fleet in the industry, so SOLAS 2010 has little effect on our ships,”comments Minas Myrtidis, vice-president of fleet regulatory compliance at Norwegian Cruise Line.

“As part of our fleet renewal programme, which began in 2005, we started adding bigger and newer ships to our fleet and retiring the older ones. Vessels built before 1980 will likely not meet the new standards without some changes and this may cause some smaller operations difficulty, so there may be less capacity in the market for some time.”

Carnival Corporation is also ready for the changes. “The latest safe return to port regulations have had no immediate effect on us as they do not apply to existing ships,”says Tom Strang, vice-president, policy and regulation, maritime policy and compliance at the company.

“The industry was involved in developing the regulations, so operators are fully engaged in the process.”

“The new rules entered into force on July 1 and all ships ordered after that date will be in compliance. Because the industry has been involved in the development of the regulations, operators have been fully engaged in the process, which means that many of the new requirements have already been incorporated.”

In May 2010, the company finalised contracts to build two new 3,600 passenger ships. Scheduled to enter service in spring 2013 and spring 2014, the new vessels will come under the Princess brand and will conform fully with the latest regulations.

Jack Spencer, director, office of marine safety at the National Transportation Safety Board, agrees that the industry is ready for the 2010 deadline, particularly in the US.

“I don’t think the new regulations will have much impact at all,”he says. “The cruise industry is vibrant, with millions of US citizens embarking out of our ports, primarily on foreign flag ships. They are the cream of the crop. Any cruise ship coming into the States for the first time has to undergo safety checks in order to ensure it meets with SOLAS requirements.”

Safety improvements

The industry is also united in its desire to continually build upon its safety record.

“Globally, the new regulations will help to improve safety at sea,”says Mark Rosenker, cruise industry advisor and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “It’s all about preventing problems, so we don’t see a repeat of the catastrophic accidents of the 1930s and 1940s. Despite this, however, the industry has an outstanding safety record and the most dangerous part of the cruise is undoubtedly the drive to the port. It is very rare that people are injured on a cruise ship.”

For Lantz, prevention is key, making the new regulations useful in identifying potential problem areas.

“Greater priority is placed on the identification of potential risks and hazards and the implementation of measures to prevent a casualty from ever occurring,”he says. “Response to casualties remains an important Coast Guard mission, but history has proven, and our experience has confirmed, that far more lives can be saved by prevention. “

The introduction of increasingly large ships also makes it crucial that every area of the industry works together to focus on safety, continues Lantz. “As technology advances and cruise ships grow ever larger, it is vitally important that the Coast Guard, IMO and industry continue in their collaborative partnership to improve safety,”he explains. “Without this emphasis, both regulators and industry may find themselves in the midst of a significant casualty with some of the new ships that are capable of carrying in excess of 7,000 passengers and crew.”

Strang agrees that it is vitally important that the industry seeks continuously to improve its safety measures. “We have safety management systems in place, and we incorporate internal investigations and inspections which enable us to learn lessons,”he says. “We share this across the group as part of our continuous improvement process for the organisation.”

Factors for effective cruise safety

Dr Jack Spencer, director, office of marine safety at the National Transportation Safety Board, also thinks that communication within the industry is one of the most important factors when it comes to meeting the new regulations.

“We are very comfortable with the efforts of the cruise industry,”he says. “One of the reasons we focus on passenger ships is that the consequences of an accident can be so severe. We try to maintain good communication with CLIA and the cruise lines to make sure they understand our position. They are trying to do the right thing and use best practice.”

“If you can’t ensure a high level of safety, you don’t have a business.”

Without a good safety record, the business model itself may also be harmed.

“If people began to perceive that a ship is unsafe there wouldn’t be a business anymore,”adds Rosenker. “It is in the cruise lines’ best interest for necessity but also for the business plan. Operators need this duality to be successful and the cruise industry epitomises that right now.”

The latest regulations will help the industry to build on its strong foundation, according to Thompson.

“If you can’t ensure a high level of safety, you don’t have a business,”he says. “Technology continuously improves and the maritime industry and regulators gain experience from unforeseen incidents and daily operations. It is important to keep improving and the cruise industry is part of that. We’re the ones that operate the ships, so who better to understand safety and what needs to be done if not the industry itself?”