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Most cruise ships put emphasis on safety

Enzo Russo / EPA

Evacuated Costa Concordia passengers wear life vests and blankets Jan. 14 as they wait to disembark a rescue boat for shore.

The recent incident of the luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia running aground off the coast of Italy has refocused attention on safety at sea.

In response to the Concordia disaster, Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Costa Cruises and several other cruise lines, said Thursday it would review safety and emergency response procedures. "While I have every confidence in the safety of our vessels and the professionalism of our crews, this review will evaluate all practices and procedures to make sure that this kind of accident doesn't happen again," said Micky Arison, Carnival Corporation's chairman and CEO, in a statement.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, walked msnbc.com through a typical safety drill on a cruise ship and answered some other important safety questions. 

What is covered during a typical safety drill?

“There is no typical safety drill,” Brown said. There are many different-sized ships and cruise lines, and they all originate from different countries, but there are some important points about what to do in the case of an emergency that most lines generally cover in drills, she said. These include:

  • how to know if there is an emergency, which is signaled by a series of short blasts and one long blast over the ship’s loudspeaker.
  • how to reunite with family members if passengers are separated. (Brown said it was not as much of an issue as it could have been in the recent Costa Concordia disaster, which occurred while many passengers were dining, so families were most likely together.)
  • how to use a life jacket, which passengers typically bring from their cabins.
  • where to go on the ship when an emergency occurs.
  • what to do in the case of a man overboard.

Most drills “are pretty substantial,” Brown said. “But they are a big bother for some people. Nobody wants to do them when they are just beginning their holiday, but it’s important, and they are taken very seriously,” by most cruise lines.

Are drills usually held the first day?  

Drills on all cruise ships must be held within 24 hours of departing from port, Brown said.  Many times, especially for cruises that depart from U.S. ports, safety briefings are conducted on the first afternoon, and often before the ship leaves port.

“But 24 hours is a fairly long time,” Brown said. In the Costa Concordia case, the passengers who boarded the ship in Civitavecchia did not yet have a drill, but the ship did not go against standard procedure, she said. 

Some press reports have suggested that none of the passengers were given safety instruction, but that is not true, as passengers who boarded before the Civitavecchia port of call did have safety briefings, Brown said. “They were within their rights. That’s the big tragedy. But I think that will change.” Brown said she would not be surprised if the 24-hour window would be shortened so safety briefings would occur closer to the time of embarkation.

Do most people attend the drills and have they proven to be effective?

Brown said it was impossible to know, but that most ships were careful to have crews “go cabin to cabin” to check public areas to see if people were not attending, and to make checklists that reflected attendance. “It may be boring to attend, but the fact is, we’ve seen very few fatalities during cruise ship emergencies, until now,” Brown said. “That is an indication that safety measures are working." One main problem in the Costa Concordia case is “there was no leadership whatsoever,” Brown said. 

Cruise survivors: 'There was so much chaos'

What does maritime law require? 

The International Maritime Organization, a specialized United Nations agency, oversees maritime safety through international conventions. The Safety of Life at Sea convention, known as SOLAS, mandates that safety briefings be conducted within 24 hours of leaving port, Brown said. “But it is very broadly interpreted by individual cruise lines, and it is up to local authorities if they want to add measures.”  The agency, however, does not have policing powers. 

Are some cruise lines more diligent than others overall in terms of communicating about safety?

Readers of “Cruise Critic” frequently remarked on the publication’s blog that certain cruise lines, like Norwegian and Princess, are considered to be quite serious about their  safety briefings, Brown said.  Since the recent Costa Concordia tragedy, readers have indicated that its safety drills were lax and sloppy, Brown said. Other cruise lines, she said, “go above and beyond,” like Royal Caribbean.

How safe is that cruise ship anyway?

How does a typical cruise safety drill compare to a typical airline safety briefing?

Safety drills aboard most airlines usually last only about two minutes, and are often on video rather than in person, Brown said. Cruise safety drills typically last about a half hour to 45 minutes. However, there is a hierarchy in the cruise world. “Captains ultimately answer to no one -- on board,” Brown said.  The reasons are steeped in seafaring history, she said. "But I think that’s something that will change.” More checks and balances are needed, and she anticipates there will be changes in the future as a result of this tragedy. “A lot of standardization is probably coming out of this,” she said.  One area that will likely change will be to include instruction in multiple languages, which now only occurs on a regular basis on a few lines, Brown said.

How difficult is it to evacuate a ship the size of a small city?

It is not an easy task, Brown said, “but systems are in place, so no matter how big or small a ship, it can be done successfully.” Most crews are well-trained in emergency preparedness and are required to conduct practice drills every week, often when the ship is at port and passengers have disembarked. Simulated drills include basic procedures, like where crew members should be stationed during an emergency (checking cabins for passengers who remained inside or in public spaces directing traffic) as well as more elaborate scenarios, like man overboard drills or what to do if a fire breaks out in an engine room. In addition, new technologies are being developed and implemented that will make safety even better, Brown said. But currently, she said, when it comes to safety, most lines “take it very seriously and work very hard at it.” 

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The Costa Concordia ran aground Jan. 13 off the coast of Italy, resulting in the evacuation of thousands of passengers as the ship began heavily listing.

Information from CNBC was included in this report.