Presented with videos of evacuation simulations and descriptions of emergency response plans on Wednesday, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board had to ask: How would this work in real life?

“It’s easy to talk about what the expectations are and how to be calm, but when something actually happens, that is the opportunity to understand if things worked as planned and designed,” said Deborah Hersman, the NTSB chair.

During the second day of a forum focused on cruise ship safety, she pointed out that evacuation of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off an Italian island in 2012, did not begin until the ship was already listing seriously. Most passengers managed to escape, some by lifeboats and life rafts and some by jumping into the water; 32 people died.

“I think the question is: Do we have the capability to evacuate, launch and rescue the number of people that can be on a cruise ship?” she said. “The simulations are good, but we had a real-life scenario and things didn’t go as planned.”

Intended to examine questions related to safety of the global cruise industry, the meeting on Wednesday touched on vessel operations, emergency response and corporate oversight. It followed discussions Tuesday that about fire safety, accident investigations and regulatory issues.

Rai Caluori, executive vice president of fleet operations for Princess Cruises, described his cruise line’s emergency response center, which could swing into action for crises ranging from weather disruptions to collisions.

“The critical part of our overall response is focused solely on safety of those on board and the impact on the environment,” he said, adding that financial concerns are not considered by the 12-person emergency team.

“We believe that it’s very important that the responding team is under absolutely no commercial pressure whatsoever, and is free to take action based on what’s best for the ship and souls on board,” he said.

The fleet captain for Royal Caribbean International, which operates the world’s largest cruise ships, described how the company has added technology over the past few years to better prepare for emergencies.

Capt. Hernan Zini said the Miami-based cruise line uses an electronic system for gathering passengers in muster drills, which allows them to see whether people have checked in to the wrong station. Royal Caribbean also includes public address systems on life boats, more than 1,300 closed-circuit cameras on the larger ships and video screens on the bridge.

Zini said the company is also exploring the idea of using radio frequency identification, which would read transponders embedded in cards carried by passengers and would allow faster handling of crowds.

He and others insisted that larger ships, such as the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, are actually safer than older and smaller ships because they have more areas that can be isolated in case of an emergency at sea.

But as she wrapped up the first-ever NTSB forum on cruise safety, Hersman questioned whether the industry, regulators and investigators are truly prepared to handle a massive catastrophe at sea in an era of megaships.

She acknowledged that of the more than 21 million passengers who go on a cruise every year, the vast majority return safely.

“As we have said about other industries, the lack of a major accident is not an indication of safety,” Hersman said.

Tags: ntsb, safety
Photo Credit: Captain Francesco Schettino gestures as he stands on the Costa Concordia cruise liner at the Giglio harbour. Allesandro Bianchi / Reuters