Cruising has become one of the most popular vacation options for American travelers. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Transportation (Maritime Administration), a record 18.2 million passenger nights were booked on North American cruises during the fourth quarter of 2010; that number is expected to increase in the months and years to come.
No surprise, given the extraordinary experience that cruising delivers. What isn’t as commonly known, however, is that cruising boasts the travel industry’s strongest safety record.
The safety of guests and crew members is the top priority of any cruise-line operation. A fun and friendly environment may be the foundation upon which the industry was built, but the overall safety of each passenger is taken very seriously.
A ship’s captain, crew, and other onboard officials will make a concerted effort to educate, prepare, and inform passengers in the unlikely event of an emergency. The primary safety protocol for all cruise ships is the mandatory lifeboat drill, which includes:
- A review of the entire shipboard method in the case of an emergency
- Full disclosure of appropriate meeting locations (also known as “muster stations”)
- The locations of lifeboats, life jackets & life preservers
- An in-depth demonstration on how to properly secure a lifejacket
- A complete overview of evacuation & lifeboat-embarkation procedures
In most cases, a live presentation or the screening of a safety video will take place in the ship’s main theatre. Some cruise lines will require passengers to bring their life jackets from their stateroom to the presentation; others will simply call attention to the location of life jackets within a stateroom. Regardless, it’s been mandated that all passengers be made fully aware of safety protocols prior to a ship’s departure.
From ship design to the hiring of dedicated staff, cruise lines have made the safety of young passengers a special focus. Onboard children’s programs, which group kids based on age-appropriate standards, have been established; these programs are supervised by vetted and experienced crew members who are uniquely qualified to work with children.
Children’s programs are an extremely popular resource for parents; as a result, the cruise lines have set up numerous tiers of precaution to ensure that kids are always safe and secure whenever they’re apart from their mothers and fathers. Most cruise lines distribute identification bracelets that may be worn by children for the duration of their cruise. In an emergency situation, trained counselors are responsible for escorting children to appropriate meeting areas, where they’re reunited with their parents. At no time is a child unsupervised or unaccounted for; uniformed crew members are stationed throughout the ship and available to assist as needed.
The cruise lines, much like the airlines, have constructed a virtually impenetrable security system that solidifies each vessel’s inherently controlled environment. According to CLIA, worldwide regulations (officially known as the International Ship & Port Facility Security Code) have been implemented requiring all ships, port facilities, and governments to establish formal security plans, screening measures, access controls, waterside security, and communication between ships and ports.
Prior to embarkation, all passengers (along with their luggage) are thoroughly screened at multiple security checkpoints. All passengers must present a valid and up-to-date form of identification.
Crew members responsible for security are subject to an even more stringent screening process, ensuring that only the most qualified individuals are eligible to assume positions of authority while onboard. Personnel will vary from ship to ship (many cruise lines employ individuals with military training and/or backgrounds in law enforcement), but crew members are always stationed in areas where passenger access is restricted (such as a ship’s bridge and engine room). Crew members are also stationed at specific entry-and-exit points requiring identification in order to prevent unauthorized boarding and discourage potentially illegal activity.
Today’s cruise ships are also rife with high-tech surveillance cameras; crew members and security personnel can visually monitor virtually any public space aboard a vessel. It’s important to note, however, that while a majority of common areas may be viewed through a lens, a passenger’s stateroom is never equipped with cameras.
It’s also important to note that the cruise lines have partnered with local, state, federal, and international organizations (including the U.S. Coast Guard and the F.B.I.) to ensure maximum safety for all passengers.
A fire at sea is, by far, one of the most dangerous emergencies that can occur aboard a cruise ship. For that reason, cruise lines have dedicated extensive resources and manpower to address fire prevention; a knowledgeable staff is ready to assist in the case of a fire emergency, and many cruise ships are heavily equipped with the latest in firefighting technology.
Fire on a cruise ship is extremely uncommon, but most vessels are well-prepared to manage any type of fire emergency at any time. The following firefighting resources can be found aboard a majority of cruise ships:
- Well-trained & experienced firefighting teams
- An extensive & qualified support team (available 24 hours a day)
- Additional support from crew members (with advanced firefighting training)
- Fully powered sprinkler heads & smoke alarms in all staterooms
- Fire extinguishers & smoke detectors located throughout the ship
- A sufficient number of lifeboats & life rafts, based on the number of passengers onboard
The medical facilities on today’s cruise ships are staffed by some of the most highly qualified professionals at sea. From pediatricians to highly esteemed physicians, the cruise lines have allocated an enormous amount of resources towards hiring medical professionals who adhere to strict international standards of treatment; the cruise industry also works closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address a myriad of medical emergencies that could potentially occur onboard.
The following medical resources are available aboard a majority of cruise ships:
- A fully licensed medical staff, on call whenever a ship is at sea, that can provide emergency care to passengers
- State-of-the-art medical/surgical technology that can be used to stabilize patients, administer reasonable diagnostics, etc.
- An emergency-preparedness plan (in case of widespread medical emergency)
Medical facilities aboard cruise ships will differ depending on the size of a ship, its passenger count, and the number of days spent at sea. Cruise ships are well-equipped to address most health concerns, but travelers with medical issues are encouraged to take precautions by consulting with their personal general practitioner prior to taking any vacation.
There are a handful of potential health issues to consider when weighing various vacation options; one of the most common is known as norovirus.
Norovirus is a flu-like illness, primarily transmitted via contaminated water or food, which affects the stomach and intestines. The virus can spread rapidly from one person to another, and it normally propagates itself within semi-contained public environments such as hospitals, long-term care facilities, dormitories, hotels, and, at times, cruise ships.
It’s important to note that this particular strain of illness is usually not very serious, and a typical bout with norovirus will last no longer than a day or two. But the cruise industry appreciates the possibility of this virus making its way onboard, so measures have been put in place to prevent contamination and the spread of the virus. These measures include:
- Crew members who greet passengers with vials of hand sanitizer upon embarkation
- The distribution of health-concern reports/questionnaires to be read/completed by each passenger
- Hand-sanitizing stations located throughout the ship (especially in heavily trafficked common areas, e.g. dining areas)
- Signage encouraging passengers to wash their hands with regularity for the duration of their cruise
- A fully staffed medical facility, equipped to react at the first sign of contamination in order to prevent widespread outbreak