Safeguarding Lives at Sea
Friday, September 26, 2014

The next time you step onboard a cruise ship, Rob Brown wants you to think about how quickly and safely you can get off in case of an emergency.

As a researcher at the Marine Institute’s Offshore Safety and Survival Centre, Mr. Brown conducts research in the areas of emergency response, evacuation, survival and rescue in hopes his findings are adopted by ship designers, regulators, operators and survival trainers.

For the last few years, Mr. Brown has also been working with colleagues at the University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom to improve passenger ship safety worldwide as part of his PhD program.

Their focus has been on studying passenger response to evacuation alarms and validating current evacuation models specific for large passenger ships. As Mr. Brown explains having the data are crucial to regulators who test existing models for ship evacuation.

“Understanding how people behave in emergency situations within maritime settings is vital if we are to design evacuation-efficient vessels and evacuation procedures for crew and passengers to follow,” said Mr. Brown.

The team’s research became the basis of the SAFEGUARD project, in which a series of five full-scale assembly exercises were conducted at sea on three different types of passenger vessels operating in Europe – a Roll-On-Roll-Off-Passenger (RO-PAX) ferry without cabins, a cruise ship and a RO-PAX ferry with cabins. The funding for the research was provided by the European Union Framework Program 7, the province’s Research and Development Corporation (RDC) and Transport Canada.

One of the objectives of SAFEGUARD was to develop a series of passenger response time distributions that could be used in passenger ship evacuation analysis. The response time is defined as the time between the sounding of the alarm and when passengers start moving to an assembly station.

Onboard a passenger ship, the general emergency alarm sounds to alert passengers to assemble and is often the first cue an individual receives that an incident has occurred which may require evacuation. The individual’s behaviour during the early stages of an evacuation can have a major impact on how the entire evacuation progresses.

“Our team used up to 106 battery-powered video cameras and the ship’s own CCTV cameras in strategic locations throughout the vessels to determine passenger response behaviour, as well as a novel infrared-based tracking system to capture passenger movement during the trials. Using this system, we were able to determine the response behaviour and paths for a large proportion of the passengers as they responded to the alarms and moved to the assembly stations onboard,” described Mr. Brown. “Some people moved immediately to the assembly stations but it was interesting to see the range of behaviours – some people did nothing until told by crew, while others looked for family members.”

About 5,500 passengers took part in the trials, making it the largest monitored assembly data set ever collected on land or sea. The results of such a large-scale test series were eye-opening.

The researchers found that the behaviour of passengers on the RO-PAX vessels and cruise ship differed, possibly due to the nature of the voyage and the impact it has on passenger perceptions of their connection to the vessel. Ferries are seen as a means of transport, involving short voyages where passengers usually carry their belongings with them. In contrast, cruise ship passengers see their ship as an integral part of their vacation experience, settling in for days at a time and have a greater expectation of permanency while onboard.

This may explain why passengers in public spaces on the cruise ship took considerably longer to respond to the alarm than passengers in public spaces on the RO-PAX vessels. Passengers in cabins also took considerably longer to respond than passengers in public areas.

Their findings led to the submission of three information papers to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which recommended modifications to current regulations that govern ship evacuation analysis.

Their results were published in the International Journal of Maritime Engineering in 2013 for which the team were awarded a Medal of Distinction by the Royal Institute of Naval Architects.

“It was certainly rewarding to receive that recognition and feel that you have contributed in some way to the safety of passenger ships,” said Mr. Brown. “This research offered new data that has added to our knowledge of how we can design new ships for more effective and safe evacuation.”

Mr. Brown and the team are now looking forward to addressing their recommendations at the IMO, the United Nations agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping worldwide.

“We think the current passenger ship evacuation analysis guidelines have to improve so that the industry can design and build vessels that improve how quickly and safely passengers are able to assemble in an emergency situation,” said Mr. Brown. “That’s when our work becomes meaningful for the safety of passengers on all ships.