Friday, 20 January 2012

Evacuation Drills and reality ...

One thing that has struck me over the last few days, listening to the passangers and the various excited television and media "experts" pontificating on the Costa Concordia evacuation, is that, despite the complaints that it was "chaotic" - almost everyone got off. The Captain, his second and third officers seem to have managed it quite early, presumably leaving the crew and the First Officer, to cope with the rest. There is almost certainly a difference in perspective between those who are waiting to be evacuated, usually in a state of some anxiety, and those trying to manage the loading of boats and their successful launching. The difference in point of view can be a chasm, for from the point of view of those loading passengers as fast as they can into boats and making sure the unsteady, the panicky and the impatient don't fall, start a stampede or push someone overboard, it wasn't chaos, for those waiting, often unable to hear instructions, it was probably taking far too long.

What everyone forgets is that these evacuations are quite rare. Thankfully. The tests and drills are all done in harbour, usually with volunteers from the local University acting as the passengers. The ship is stable, the liferafts, escape chutes and boats are all behaving beautifully in the protected waters of the harbour. What nobody ever attempts to do in these trials is evacuate the full complement with the ship canted over and threatening to roll onto the lifeboats and rafts on one side, and making it extremely difficult to launch anything at all on the other. Add to that the fact that these passenger liners carry only enough boats and rafts for the number of people on board. There is no spare capacity, so if you lose a boat or raft, you already have a problem. Lose more than one and the problem starts to run away ...

I would suggest that, despite the Captain's dereliction of his duty, the remarkable thing is that they did actually achieve a near complete evacuation. Yes, there are a number of dead, but remember this ship was carrying 4,200 passengers and crew and all bar 37 were able to leave the ship safely. That in itself is quite an achievement. Had the weather beed bad, had they been unable to actually beach the vessel in her current position, the death toll would probably have been far higher than it is.

Josephus and I have, for more years than we care to admit, taught evacuation techniques and procedures for buildings. Josephus also trained people working on offshore platforms in evacuation drills. One thing we can both attest to is that evacuations seldom run perfectly and without a hitch - and that's on land. From an offshore platform, or a sinking ship in a seaway, and you are into a whole new ball game. On a ship, around one third of the people aboard are crew, but few of those are seamen, the largest proportion are Stewards, chefs, entertainers and 'housekeepers.' Though they have some training in emergency procedure, it hardly prepares them for the full impact of dealing with 3,000 very unhappy and excited passengers.

Those who have tried it will also know that clambering into an inflatable liferaft is not the easiest or the most comfortable thing to do in the sea. Think "Bouncy Castle" combined with it being erected on a lake and you begin to get the idea. These things behave a bit like a rollercoaster, crossed with a carousel.

I cannot escape the feeling that the passengers on this ship have been very, very lucky. Despite his other failures, the Captain did the most sensible thing - he rammed the ship onto the island as close as he could get to the shore. Then his crew seem to have managed, under circumstances I doubt any of them ever really expected to have to deal with, to get the vast majority of the passengers off. As I said in my previous post on this subject, and Josephus commented in another, these ships are only marginally stable. In a damaged state, they can quickly lose that margin. It's worth remembering that, had the ship been further out, there is a good chance far more people would have been lost.

Food for thought in a world driven by "cash flows" and "bottom lines." There are some costs you simply cannot ignore when it comes to choosing between safety and maximum profit ...

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