It's time to reexamine international safety regulations, particularly as an investigation reveals what went wrong off the Tuscan coast. The International Maritime Organization should conduct a stem-to-stern review of safety system requirements, as well as damage-control and stability criteria for passenger vessels. And the United States must take a leadership role, guided by our official guardians of sea safety, the Coast Guard.
The sinking of the Titanic almost 100 years ago led to the first international law on passenger-vessel safety, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. Thanks to SOLAS and its progeny, today's cruise ships are equipped with life boats, life jackets for all passengers, and damage-control equipment.
Since 1914, ships and their systems have evolved technologically and grown in size and capacity. The typical cruise ship today carries 2,700 passengers and 800 crew, and has 4,000 smoke detectors, 500 fire extinguishers, 5,000 sprinkler heads, 16 miles of sprinkler piping, and six miles of fire hose.
However, in a crisis, technology is no replacement for trained people. Knowing how to operate damage-control equipment and direct passengers to safety can mean the difference between life and death.
The Coast Guard is charged with oversight of safety systems in all cruise ships calling on U.S. ports, regardless of their origin. Its inspections, announced and unannounced, are rigorous, beginning during ships' construction. Inspectors conduct quarterly visits and board cruise ships annually to check for compliance with federal and international laws.
Coast Guard inspections focus on structural fire safety and the proper functioning of all safety systems and equipment, including firefighting systems, lifesaving equipment, lifeboats, life rafts, and life jackets. Inspectors meet with ship masters to review training records and certifications. Inspection teams also observe fire drills and abandon-ship drills. Coast Guard port captains have the authority to detain vessels that don't meet standards.
SOLAS also requires that lifeboats be capable of being loaded, launched, and maneuvered away from a ship within 30 minutes of a master's signal to abandon ship. Those who live in places where cruise ships call have no doubt seen boat drills being conducted while passengers go ashore for sightseeing. And Americans who have taken cruises will recall being assigned lifeboats and participating in drills once aboard.
The Coast Guard is closely following the tragic grounding of the Costa Concordia and has offered to participate in the investigation. The Italian government should welcome the expertise and experience of these seasoned officers. Once the investigation has concluded, the International Maritime Organization should address any issues it raises with a comprehensive review of passenger-vessel stability and safety criteria. Tragedies like the Titanic must remain in the distant past.
Melissa Bert is a U.S. Coast Guard captain and a visiting fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.