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Cruise industry announces change to safety drill policy

1:26 AM, Feb 10, 2012   |    comments
Costa Concordia/Image courtesy Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images
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Every vacationer boarding a cruise ship will receive a safety briefing before the vessel sets sail under a new industry-wide policy announced today.

In a joint statement, the U.S.-based Cruise Lines International Association, Europe-based European Cruise Council and UK-based Passenger Shipping Association said the new policy would apply across the board to their members, which include every major cruise line in the world.

The announcement comes in the wake of an industry-wide safety review following last month's Costa Concordia disaster off the coast of Italy, which resulted in at least 17 deaths. Fifteen passengers remain missing.

Cruise line policies on passenger safety briefings have come under intense scrutiny since the Jan. 13 accident, in which the ship struck rocks and partly sank. At the time of the accident, there were nearly 700 passengers on the ship who had not received a safety briefing. The passengers had joined the vessel in Civitavecchia, Italy just hours before the event and had been scheduled to receive a safety briefing the next day.

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Passengers have described confusion on board the ship in the minutes after the accident, with some passengers who had just boarded the vessel that day not knowing what to do or where to go.

While most major cruise lines already hold safety briefings for embarking passengers before ships set sail, it hasn't been a universal policy across the industry until now. Under rules established by the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, passenger ships can wait up to 24 hours after passengers embark to hold a safety briefing.

The Costa Concordia accident already had prompted several lines that hadn't always held safety briefings immediately after embarkation, including Oceania Cruises and sister line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, to change their policies.

Also known as muster or emergency drills, safety briefings on ships normally last about 30 to 45 minutes and start with passengers assembling in designated "muster" stations. Crew members then explain the safety procedures of the ship, including what to do and where to go in an emergency, and how to find and put on a life jacket.

The new policy "is designed to help ensure that any mandatory musters or briefings are conducted for the benefit of all newly embarked passengers at the earliest practical opportunity," the cruise organizations said in a statement.

Industry watchers praised the move. "Every action taken to heighten cruiser awareness of safety at sea is a positive step," says cruise-selling travel agent Amber Blecker, of CruiseOne in Aurora, Colo.

Blecker noted that the new policy could result in safety briefings being held at some odd times. While most cruise ships set sail in the late afternoon or early evening, some itineraries are known for late-evening departures. In such cases, until now, some lines would wait to hold briefings until the following day to accommodate late-arriving passengers.

"There may be times that a muster drill prior to departure is inconvenient, such as when the ship leaves the embarkation port late at night," Blecker says. "But in reality, (even with late-sailing ships) most passengers board early in the day, so this won't necessarily mean 11:00 pm muster drills even in those circumstances, as some passengers seem to fear."

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