Life on the high seas should be safer in the future thanks to the results of an EU-funded research project aimed at vastly improving ship evacuation and safety procedures on passenger boats, and which could set the benchmark for maritime law. The work is a result of the SAFEGUARD ('Ship evacuation data and scenarios') project which received just over EUR 2 million from the 'Information society technologies' Theme of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
The research team, which included academics, engineering consultants and shipping companies, ran an unprecedented research project on board the Royal Caribbean international cruise ship Jewel of the Seas, in which more than 2 300 passengers took part in a 'live' assembly drill while at sea. They wanted to analyse ship evacuation procedures — in particular the length of time it takes passengers to respond to an alarm — and to improve current evacuation analysis practices.
Using around 100 video cameras, including CCTV (closed-circuit television), fish-eye, digital and analogue cameras, the researchers measured the response time of all passengers once the evacuation alarm set off. The passengers wore infra-red tracking tags throughout the half-hour exercise, allowing the researchers to locate each person's exact movements and reconstruct the paths people took as they made their way around the ship to the various assembly points on board.
Research leader Professor Ed Galea from Greenwich University, Fire Engineering Group in the UK said the experiment on board the Jewel of the Seas had created nothing less than a piece of maritime history. 'This assembly trial was unique in several aspects, as we collected data from a large cruise ship, during a virtually unannounced assembly drill and while we were actually at sea,' he pointed out.
'The research measured realistic response times to the alarm, at a time when 2 300 passengers were spread over 12 decks,' Professor Galea noted. 'Although the passengers had been told the day before that we would be doing a drill, they were largely unprepared and could be found around the ship in their staterooms, in the bars, in the gym, in the shops, restaurants and elsewhere as the alarm sounded.'
Professor Galea added that 'all of this represents a significant difference from a typical assembly trial, which is heavily announced beforehand, which takes place before the ship sails, and where many of the passengers are already at the assembly points simply waiting for the drill to begin'.
He said the scale of the operation on board the Jewel of the Seas, which took place this past summer, was vast with the exercise requiring nine months of planning. Professor Galea stated that at least six months will be needed for frame-by-frame analysis of the video footage to measure the reaction times of passengers as they made their way to assembly points. Researchers will also have to evaluate questionnaires filled in by passengers on board at the time of the drill.
The team's intense preparation paid off as nearly all passengers cooperated with the assembly drill and wore their tags throughout the exercise. 'It was exhausting and exciting to organise this project on the Jewel of the Seas, and the results will be far-reaching,' said Professor Galea, adding that 'nothing on this scale is likely to be attempted again.'
He said he was confident that 'the research conducted by the SAFEGUARD team will help shape future maritime law and, ultimately, by informing the design of better and safer ships, will help save lives'.
Tracy Murrell, Director of maritime safety and compliance for Royal Caribbean Cruises, said her company 'looks forward to learning from the results of the project'.