Ship fire spurs look at safety

Officials to review past recommendations about blazes on cruise ships

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

The National Transportation Safety Board wants to take a look at the Nieuw Amsterdam too.

As the 704-foot-long cruise ship took on a fresh complement of passengers in Seward today, a four-member team with the NTSB went on board as well. The Holland America Line cruise ship was carrying 1,201 passengers and 566 crew in Glacier Bay when a Tuesday morning fire caused damage to 10 crew cabins.

Phil Frame, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the organization is particularly concerned about cruise ship fires.

``They often operate out of range of land-based fire safety operations,'' he said.

Frame said the investigation into the fire on the Nieuw Amsterdam will likely include a review of safety recommendations stemming from past cruise ship fires.

The NTSB made a series of recommendations after the July 1996 fire on the Universe Explorer near Juneau, which resulted in the death of five crew members. The U.S. Coast Guard looked at the NTSB's recommendations and agreed with some, but not all of them.

For example, NTSB recommendations to periodically drill crews on alternate escape routes and to have specifically trained rescue teams on each passenger ship were deemed unnecessary by the Coast Guard. The training requirements worked, the Guard decided, and fire teams are adequately trained to perform rescue operations.

Nick Schowengerdt, director of policy and plans for Holland America, said the safety rules work as they are.

``We agree with the Coast Guard's analysis,'' he said.

He pointed to the Tuesday fire on the Nieuw Amsterdam as an example of how safe the ship is. Though sprinklers and local-sounding fire alarms weren't on board, the fire was contained.

Lt. Cmdr. Brian Peter, with Juneau's Marine Safety Office, said the fire, probably electrical in origin, showed the ship was safe.

``Everything worked exactly the way it's supposed to work, which validates the way the vessel was built,'' he said.

There are other safety rules in effect, he said, from requirements for firefighting training to emergency systems to limits on the amount of combustible material carried on board.

Schowengerdt said those measures worked.

Though a passenger from Florida was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital, his medical problems weren't directly attributable to the fire, Schowengerdt said.

``Ships are built to the standards of their day,'' he said. ``It's like air bags in cars. New ones have them. Old ones don't. Should you go back and put air bags in all cars? I don't think so.''

Just because a ship doesn't have a sprinkler system, he said, ``doesn't mean the ships are unsafe.''

As it is, ships like the Nieuw Amsterdam have fire detectors that set of an alarm on the bridge. When activated, someone gets sent down to investigate the alarm. The detectors, Schowengerdt said, are very sensitive, and regular false alarms occur.

Fire alarms that go off where a fire is, he said, can't just be bought at the store and integrated into the ship's existing system. It'll take time and money, he said. But he said it's just a matter of time before legislation is enacted requiring such alarms on older vessels.

``We are looking at that,'' Schowengerdt said. ``It's going to happen.''

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