Feds push cruise ships for alarms

Industry argues over what saves lives

Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending cruise line companies install automatic smoke alarms that can be heard in passenger and crew quarters.

The board today prodded the cruise industry to drop its opposition to the idea, pointing to five deaths in a 1996 ship fire near Juneau.

But a cruise organization executive angrily denied the industry has opposed the concept, called local-sounding smoke alarms, saying the industry is simply interested in a system that will work effectively.

The safety board said installing devices that sound in the cabins would provide more immediate warning of the presence of smoke and would increase the amount of time for escape.

James Hall, chairman of the five-member NTSB, said the current system, with smoke alarms sounding in the ship's control area or on the bridge, is akin ``to having a smoke detector in your bedroom that sounds the alarm in the local fire department.''

The recommendations, adopted today after an hour-long discussion, are nearly identical to those made by the safety board three years ago after an investigation of the Universe Explorer fire. A fire broke out on the ship, which was sailing from Juneau to Glacier Bay in July 1996, killing five crew members and injuring 69 people.

The safety board this morning prodded the International Council of Cruise Lines to drop opposition to the idea of local-sounding smoke alarms and to support a full debate on the issue before the International Maritime Organization, which is affiliated with the United Nations.

After the meeting, Ted Thompson, executive vice president of the organization, angrily rebuffed the allegations by the safety board.

``We have never opposed the principle or goal of this recommendation and we still don't,'' Thompson said. ``We support a full technical discussion at the IMO.''

Thompson said the industry is working to develop a local-sounding alarm system that works. He expressed concern that passengers would not be able to hear instructions over the public address system or directives from firefighters.

``With a screeching alarm ... what we are looking for is a system that we can control and that won't interfere with other safety functions on the ship,'' Thompson said. ``We have never opposed the goal of alerting the passengers and crew to imminent danger.''

Thompson said the safety board makes recommendations ``in a vacuum, without involving the industry.''

Hall of the NTSB disputed Thompson's claim, saying he has convened several meetings with industry representatives to discuss the issue of local-sounding smoke alarms.

``We have been maligned by the cruise ship industry. They have not dealt with us in good faith,'' he said.

During the meeting, safety board staff described several cruise ship fires in recent years, including the May 20 incident on the Nieuw Amsterdam in Glacier Bay.

The U.S. Coast Guard has supported the safety board, saying the technology is available and the cost is reasonable, Hall said. The Coast Guard tried to bring the issue before the International Maritime Congress, ``but were thwarted by the opposition of the cruise lines and their association,'' he said.

He wondered why the ``cruise ship industry continues to resist this common-sense safety procedure.''

Thompson said the association opposed the Coast Guard proposal to the international group because ``it had adverse technical and operational implications.''

The issue may come up again at the next meeting of the International Maritime Congress in November.

The safety board investigates transportation accidents and makes recommendations, but has no force of law.

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