Skip to content

Illustration by Mark Smith

Safety at Sea

​Cameron Smook, a senior at Virginia Tech, boarded a Carnival Cruise Lines ship with a group of friends on March 7, 2015. On March 8, his parents reported that Smook had fallen overboard during the previous night. Search and rescue efforts to find the 21-year-old proved unsuccessful. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) released a statement in the wake of Smook’s death, criticizing cruise lines for failing to implement “the latest in automatic man overboard detection” technology, which is designed to automatically detect when a person goes over the rails. 

The battle for more effective safety and security technologies onboard cruise ships, such as man overboard detection, is ongoing. Critics of the cruise industry say the corporations are circumventing their responsibility and the law when it comes to protecting their passengers. The cruise lines say they are safer than ever and consider the safety of human life their number one priority.

The Law

Sen. Blumenthal’s strong criticism of the cruise industry did not begin with the death of Smook. In 2013, he and Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced the Cruise Passenger Protection Act in the 113th Congress. 

The legislation would have required all cruise ships to establish medical training programs for staff, install acoustic sounding devices to deter attackers, and install systems to alert crew members when a passenger has fallen overboard.

“In spite of the evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings, and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny it has a problem,” Rockefeller said in a July 2014 hearing. 

The legislation stalled, meaning that the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, remains the most comprehensive act governing cruise lines. The law outlines several provisions that cruise lines embarking and disembarking from the United States must adopt to ensure the safety and protection of passengers. The U.S. Coast Guard oversees the safety of U.S.-based cruise ships and is responsible for enforcing the CVSSA. 

The CVSSA establishes several security measures for cruise ships, including that the rail height of ships be at least 42 inches above the cabin deck, and that each stateroom is equipped with portholes “or other means of visual identification” for security purposes. 

The law also says each vessel should have technology that captures or detects someone falling overboard, and that each ship have an acoustical hailing device to provide communication capabilities around the entire vessel. Additionally, ships are required to maintain a video surveillance system and provide access to video records to law enforcement. 

In the event of a crime, under the CVSSA, cruise ships are required to provide security guides that instruct passengers on how to “prevent and respond to criminal and medical situations.” If a crime is reported, the victims are to be given a hotline directly to the FBI, and if the crime is a sexual assault then they are to be given a medical exam. Cruise lines are also required to provide victims with contact information for the Coast Guard and the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy. 

Crew members dealing with victims are also required to undergo training. Under the law, the FBI, the Coast Guard, and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) established model training standards that cover “crime prevention, detection, evidence preservation, and reporting of criminal activities,” according to MARAD’s website. The agency provides a voluntary certification program for cruise lines that want to submit their safety and training programs for review. 

But some argue that the law has not been thoroughly implemented or uniformly enforced. “I think the intent of the bill is there and the requirements are there, but they’re not being enforced by the regulators,” notes Ken Carver, who founded the International Cruise Victims Association (ICV) in 2006 after his daughter disappeared from a cruise ship. The nonprofit organization has been involved in several Capitol Hill hearings and backed legislation aimed at improving the safety and security of cruise ship passengers. 

Members of government and victim advocates like Carver have been vocal about the shortcomings of the CVSSA. Some changes have been made, especially after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last year citing ways in which cruise lines had failed to implement the CVSSA.  “Media reports about passenger personal safety while aboard cruise vessels—including those related to the January 2012 grounding of the cruise vessel Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy, which resulted in 32 deaths—combined with the increasing number of passengers taking cruises has raised questions about passenger safety and security,” the report said. 

Cruise companies must also comply with international law. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), governed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), recently amended its regulations “to require musters [safety drills] of newly embarked passengers prior to or immediately upon departure,” effective January 2015. 

The Coast Guard is proposing changes as well. This spring, the agency held a period for public comment on proposed changes to the CVSSA. According to the Federal Register, “the Coast Guard proposes amending its passenger vessel regulations to implement the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act of 2010 with respect to deck rails, systems for detecting or recording falls overboard, and for recording evidence of possible crimes, hailing devices, security guards, sexual assault response, and crime scene preservation training.” 

Lisa Novak, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard, says the comments will serve as a guide for amending the existing law. “While those comments cannot change the standards that Congress has already set through the CVSSA, they may suggest ways in which the details of implementation might be modified and improved, or suggest additional measures that Congress or the Coast Guard should take to improve cruise vessel industry safety,” she tells Security Management. 

Novak adds that the provisions of the law are not “self-executing,” meaning that the agency cannot directly require the cruise vessel industry to take action until the provisions are incorporated in the Coast Guard regulations that apply to the industry. “Some of the CVSSA standards do not contain details that industry will need in order to properly implement the standards,” she explains. “The Coast Guard is proposing regulatory amendments that would incorporate the CVSSA standards and supply the necessary details of implementation.”

Another organization that requires cruise lines to comply with industry standards is the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), which represents 62 percent of the globe’s ocean-going and river cruise vessels. Bud Darr, CLIA’s vice president of technical and regulatory affairs, maintains that each cruise line is doing its best to follow the letter of the law. 

“The safety and security of our guests is the top priority for cruise lines, and our members maintain a rigorous set of policies and procedures that are tailored to their specific operations and designed to safeguard passengers and to provide an immediate and effective response to any shipboard incident,” he says. 

However, when it comes to proposed changes to the law, Darr stresses they are ready to comply. “It’s a continuous process for us…we are very actively pursuing a wide range of potential safety enhancements, many of which were our proposals, and that’s an ongoing process.” 

Safety Measures 

The safety measures covered in the CVSSA include high-tech systems to deter threats and detect imperiled passengers, as well as policies and procedures to reduce crime. However, they have been only partially implemented. The Coast Guard notes that “the industry does not universally meet the requirements of the CVSSA at this time.”

Deterrence. Among its provisions, the CVSSA outlines measures to outfit cruise ships with security technologies designed to deter threats, such as pirates. As mentioned above, the law requires that all cruise ships “be equipped with a sufficient number of operable acoustic hailing or other such warning devices to provide communication capability around the entire vessel when operating in high-risk areas” as determined by the Coast Guard. 

In ICV’s public comments submitted to the Coast Guard, it emphasized the need for better acoustic hailing and warning devices. According to Mark Gaouette, former director of security for Princess Cruises and Cunard Cruise Lines, “acoustic hailing devices are an important part of the ship’s resources to confront small vessel threats at safe distances before they become threats close to the ship.” 

While the Coast Guard currently allows public address (PA) systems to satisfy this requirement aboard ships, Gaouette says “the ship’s PA does not have the technical capability, nor was it designed to be audible at great distances from the ship.” 

He cites an incident off the coast of Somalia in 2005 in which pirates attempted to attack the Seabourn Spirit, operated by Carnival Cruise Lines. Using a long range acoustical device (LRAD), the Seabourn Spirit successfully warded off the pirates. He and other advocates say that all ships should be required to keep such technology on board. 

Man overboard. CVSSA requires man overboard detection technology on each ship. Specifically, the law says that “the vessel shall integrate technology that can be used for capturing images of passengers or detecting passengers who have fallen overboard, to the extent that such technology is available.”

Gaouette points out that the way the bill is worded leaves cruise lines with the option of “capturing images” of a passenger falling overboard, as opposed to detecting someone falling over and having time to save them. “The person in the water has no chance of survival—and I underscore no chance of survival—if they’re not detected,” he notes.  

According to the Coast Guard’s proposed changes to CVSSA, “the technology to reliably detect persons or objects as they are in the process of going overboard is not yet readily available for use at sea…. Based on industry data provided by cruise lines, we estimate that costs would range from $62,500 to $700,000 per ship in order to comply with the CVSSA requirements.” 

But the Coast Guard also wrote that it anticipates “the cruise industry will focus on using capture systems rather than detection systems.” 

Most cruise ships meet the letter of the law by training CCTV cameras on either side of the ship, according to Gaouette. Even those ships with CCTV cameras that simply capture a person falling overboard have to later review the footage to ascertain the exact circumstances surrounding the incident. This can happen hours after the event, when passengers discover that a friend or loved one is missing. 

However, Darr of CLIA says he is “not aware of any member ship that has entered or left the United States that is not in compliance with the CVSSA’s self-executing provisions.” 

Jim Walker, a Miami-based lawyer who has represented several victims of cruise ship crime, points out that alcohol consumption has been a major factor in many man-overboard cases. He says that many passengers who become ill after drinking too much will often lean over the side of the railing, causing some to actually fall overboard.  

As mentioned previously, in 2011 the CVSSA was amended to stipulate that rail heights be no less than 42 inches, but that did not solve the problem. 

According to the GAO report, there are two aspects necessary to detect someone going overboard in real time. The first, image capture, is currently available by using CCTV and thermal imaging. The second part, algorithms that can quickly determine when someone has gone overboard and sound an alarm, is not ready, according to the cruise industry. CLIA has noted that some of the problems with real-time detection include extreme weather, surface glare, and vessel vibrations. 

Victims’ advocates insist that a solution can be found. Gaouette suggests that the Coast Guard have an open call for developers of the technology to bring their products forth to be vetted, and then have the agency choose the top three systems, “and the cruise lines will have to back one of these technologies.”

CLIA as an organization does not keep track of man overboard statistics, but Darr says individual cruise lines voluntarily report such incidents on their own websites for transparency. In addition, the law allows cruise lines to conduct their own security assessments and place CCTV cameras accordingly. “The placement and number of cameras that are in place as part of that video surveillance will vary significantly from ship to ship,” he notes. 

Ross Klein, a professor of sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, runs a blog titled Cruise Junkie that chronicles overboard incidents on cruise ships.

In 2013, he testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that between 20 and 25 people have gone overboard each year since 2009. But Klein testified at the hearing that several such cases are not reported by cruise lines, including if they are rescued or intentionally jump over, because these incidents do not meet the definition of a “missing person” in the CVSSA. 

Crime prevention. Victims’ advocates say they are especially concerned about the level of crime that goes on during cruises, and that the CVSSA doesn’t go far enough in enforcing accurate and timely reporting of incidents. 

Two wildly different pictures of crime statistics are painted by cruise lines and by industry critics. For example, in 2011, victims reported 563 incidents of crime aboard cruise ships. But cruise line websites only documented 102 of those crimes, according to statistics compiled by Klein. The FBI data was given to him under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  

Much of that discrepancy arises from the way in which the CVSSA defines a criminal act. According to the law, a financial theft is “theft of money or property in excess of $10,000.” Other criminal acts are defined as “homicide, suspicious death, a missing United States national, kidnapping…assault with serious bodily injury,” or “tampering with the vessel.” 

Carver notes this wording leaves many acts of a criminal nature out of the picture. “You can rob somebody for less than $10,000 and no action is taken…and they don’t have to report it,” he says, adding that if a person suffers a sexual assault that does not result in “serious bodily injury,” it doesn’t have to be reported either.  

Some of the reporting problems happen after law enforcement is notified. According to the law, victims of crime must immediately be given a hotline to the FBI from aboard the ship. But Walker says the law enforcement agency doesn’t necessarily act on those cases. “They may be great at dealing with white collar crime but they’ll just say that they’re not interested in getting themselves involved in bar fights and people smashing each other with beer bottles or women who are raped,” says Walker.

CLIA stresses that cruising remains safer than being on land, statistically. “Despite the way that it may be portrayed in the media, crime is rare on cruise ships and it’s a fraction of any real corresponding crime rates on land,” Darr notes. 

He says any crime allegations are reported and proper investigations are conducted, “but at times, just as on land, those investigations reveal that either the claim is unsubstantiated or it’s just not sufficient to support a criminal prosecution. That’s no different than any other legitimate criminal situation that you might face.” 

According to CLIA’s website, “The reporting procedures require that when an alleged crime is reported, cruise lines notify the FBI, the U.S. Coast Guard, the country under which a ship is registered, and local law enforcement authorities.” But CLIA goes by the CVSSA’s definition of crime, leaving out robberies under $10,000 and other acts not within the scope of the law.   

Walker’s firm represented victim Laurie Dishman, who was raped by a cruise line employee in September 2006 while on a Royal Caribbean ship. She testified at a congressional hearing in March 2007 that there were only three security guards for thousands of passengers on board the cruise. After reporting her sexual assault, she said that crew members sat on the bed where the rape occurred when questioning her, and instructed her to place any evidence she thought would be useful for the investigation in a trash bag.  

Based on testimony like this, the 2011 amendments to the CVSSA now mandate crime-scene-preservation training for crew. But Carver questions whether the one-day training program required by the law is sufficient. 

“What they came up with was a program that’s eight hours, with three hours on how to preserve a crime scene,” Carver notes. 

Outlook. The Coast Guard has not announced when it will implement changes to the CVSSA based on the public comments it receives. In the meantime, the cruise industry keeps on growing. More than 24 million passengers are expected to take a cruise by 2018, according to industry statistics, and the industry was worth $37 billion at the end of 2014.  

The concern among advocates is that without more regulation, the threat to security and safety on cruise lines remains. For threats such as piracy or terrorism, “the potential for mass disaster with a cruise line is far greater than with an airline because you have these floating cities with thousands of people,” Walker says. 

Darr notes that CLIA and the cruise lines are committed to making improvements, and that passengers are its top priority. 

“When it comes to our mandatory policies we have set up a system which works quite effectively where each CEO of each cruise line has to personally sign every year saying that all of the policies…have been implemented successfully on their ocean-going cruise ships,” he explains. “With or without government intervention we will continue to raise the bar on ourselves and make changes in safety in a wide variety of ways.”