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'SAFECRAFTS' project improving evacuation of passengers following shipping accidents

The EU-funded SAFECRAFTS project is taking a global view of the human and technical factors involved in passenger evacuation. Team members say their approach could result in dramatic reductions in deaths and injuries and could also help make European companies more competitive.

The QE2 is one of the largest passenger vessels in the world;   Image: H. Warwick
The QE2 is one of the largest passenger vessels in the world;
Image: H. Warwick

The steady worldwide trend towards the construction of bigger and bigger passenger vessels is increasing the stakes in getting ship safety right. The correct combination of on-board evacuation equipment and procedures is crucial to avoiding major catastrophes that could cost thousands of lives.

There are currently around 40 individual vessels operating worldwide that can carry more than 2000 passengers and 1000 crew. This figure is set to increase in the near future with new ferries and cruise liners with an overall capacity of 5000 already in development.

Rules covering passenger evacuation are largely laid down by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the so-called classification societies which establish and police rules covering ships’ structural, mechanical and operational fitness.

A broader approach

Much research, at both European and worldwide levels, has focused on human factors such as evacuation procedures, and the accessibility and layout of evacuation vessels. Such work has shown, for instance, that panicked passengers in conditions of low visibility, such as during a fire, tend to open ships’ doors that have windows rather than those that do not. Thus, doors leading to muster points should always be fitted with windows.

Another example: during an emergency, a swaying life raft can appear to be an unattainable goal for passengers, while under ordinary circumstances they would have no problems getting on board.

According to Leo de Vries at TNO’s Centre for Mechanical and Maritime Constructions in the Netherlands, such research, along with investigations of major shipping accidents, often sheds light on failures of equipment or procedures but almost never shows how passengers, procedures and equipment interact in emergency situations.

One of the reasons for this is that realistic simulations of shipping accidents, for example in rough weather, are rarely staged because they are so risky. Standard safety and maintenance drills demanded by existing rules are not designed to reveal the performance of equipment and procedures during real emergencies.

De Vries is coordinator of SAFECRAFTS, a four-year project funded under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) that seeks to pinpoint where safety improvements can be made. SAFECRAFTS is undertaking an analysis of all the human and technical issues involved in ship evacuation. “We want to identify all the key elements related to life saving equipment,” says de Vries.

Real accident simulations

TNO is one of very few if not the only group in the world that can stage full-scale shipping accidents to test safety innovations in a real emergency environment.
In addition to TNO, three ship constructors, two manufacturers of life-saving equipment and two shipping operators are also involved in the SAFECRAFTS project.

Because life saving technology and know-how has advanced fairly slowly over the last decades, the SAFECRAFTS project team is convinced that there is a dramatic potential for safety improvements. Suggestions for safety changes, backed up by scientific evidence and the added impetus given by full scale tests, should also lead to new EC safety standards that would be backed by the IMO and classification societies.

Competitive pay-off

At the same time, de Vries believes there could be a big commercial pay-off for European safety equipment manufacturers, shipbuilders and ferry and cruise operators. If the project results in new safety standards and show the potential for space savings on board vessels – life rafts and other safety equipment currently take up prime space on ships – then European manufacturers and operators will have a head start in implementing these changes.

“From a strategic point of view, we want to play a leading role in the world,” says de Vries. “That’s why being able to offer space savings to ship owners could be so important. If the safety improvements we propose are not economically viable then they are unlikely to be successful.”

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