Battle Lines Drawn on Cruise Ship Safety Issue : Cruising: A controversy between the National Transportation Safety Board and foreign shipping lines is brewing over an NTSB recommendation that U.S.-based foreign lines carrying American passengers must meet U.S. safety standards.

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer .

A few weeks ago, I reported on the current state of cruise ship safety. It's a controversial issue, one that pits the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) against cruise lines in a battle over authority both to enact new safety regulations and to investigate accidents involving cruise ships that are not registered in the United States.

On Oct. 11, after more than a year of investigation and research, the five-member NTSB released a study of passenger-ship safety. The bottom-line recommendation of the 200-page report is that if cruise lines are going to base their fleets in U.S. ports and carry U.S. passengers, then these ships must meet U.S. safety standards.

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the NTSB report also addressed the issue of potential drug and alcohol abuse by ship's officers and crew members.

"The Coast Guard's alcohol/drug rules," the report stated, "do not yet apply to foreign-flag passenger vessels operating for or contracted by marine employers based in the United States; there are no similar international rules addressing alcohol/drug use by crew members on foreign-flag passenger vessels. There is a need for the Coast Guard to clarify its authority to require alcohol/drug testing of (these) crew members."

The report also urged new rules requiring automatic-closing fire doors, upgraded firefighting and lifesaving drills for crew members and automatic sprinkler systems.

The report contained some potentially frightening facts: "Most U.S.-based management of foreign-flag passenger vessels do not require firefighting training for crew members responsible for firefighting."

No U.S. Authority

Perhaps most damning was the finding that "the U.S. Coast Guard does not have authority to investigate serious accidents or incidents occurring in international waters on foreign-flag passenger vessels operating from U.S. ports and embarking U.S. passengers. Serious accidents and incidents involving these vessels . . . are not required to be reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Substantial investigations by the flag administrations are not always done, and, when done, full documentation is not provided to the International Maritime Organization. Passenger safety would be greatly enhanced if formal authority was extended to the Coast Guard to fully investigate and report on the cause(s) of the accidents."

In a sweeping set of recommendations, the NTSB report has called for legislative authority for the Coast Guard to inspect and enforce safety requirements of foreign-flag ships, as well as to "seek legislative authority to require that passenger vessels, as a condition for operating from U.S. ports and embarking U.S. passengers, have fire safety protection improvements."

These would include centralized automatic fire-control systems, smoke detectors and sprinkler systems, and would call for each cruise ship to have "no less than 75% of the crew composition . . . responsible for emergency, firefighting and lifesaving service be able to understand and communicate in English with the officers and passengers."

'Bad Position'

Not surprisingly, the cruise-ship industry was not thrilled with the report.

"We haven't seen the full report," said Diana Orban, spokeswoman for the Cruise Line International Assn., a New York City-based group representing 35 cruise lines, "so it's difficult to respond. But it does put us in a bad position from a public relations point of view.

"The inference is that we don't care enough about safety at sea. But that's absurd. How can anyone be against safety? It's in everyone's best interests. There's not a cruise line that won't tell you it welcomes any and all suggestions and recommendations on safety from any and all sources.

"Statistically, we feel the specific issues raised by the general nature of the NTSB report are overblown."

In an official statement reacting to the NTSB report, CLIA argued that "the cruise industry's track record speaks for itself--it is the best in the travel industry. Since 1970, about 30 million people have enjoyed cruise vacations. In the 23 years since 1967 . . . (when additional safety requirements were added to the 1960 Safety of Life at Sea international convention) . . . "there have been only two passenger deaths due to fire or any casualty on board North American-based cruise ships."

To be sure, the fatality numbers that CLIA reports are technically correct--if you define cruise ships narrowly and don't include large passenger ferries and sightseeing cruisers. Safety is, after all, a relative term.

"What we're really talking about," said one NTSB official, "is the potential for disaster. What the NTSB report indicates is that the ingredients are, unfortunately, all there for a major catastrophic event on a cruise ship."

Validity Questioned

A spokeswoman for a large cruise line said: "We take the issue of safety extremely seriously, so we don't think what the NTSB has said is a valid issue. We're proud of our safety record, and all the NTSB is doing is unnecessarily alarming our passengers."

Not surprisingly, NTSB doesn't look at it that way. "There is a clear warning in the NTSB report," said another federal official. "There are some serious problems out there with foreign-flagged vessels, and the statement that there haven't been any accidents doesn't take away from those problems.

"It's a poor argument against new regulations. Is this going to be another case where we have to wait for a disaster in order to address problems we already know exist?"

The battle lines have been drawn, and at this writing, the NTSB report is nothing but a set of draft recommendations awaiting official reaction from all "interested parties," including cruise lines, the Coast Guard, other federal agencies . . . and you.

Copies of the official report--due out in about five weeks--may be obtained by writing to the public inquiries office of the National Transportation Safety Board, 800 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20594, or by calling (202) 382-6735.

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