Cruise ship muster drills need improvement

by Ned Levi on June 10, 2013

Regent Seven Seas Voyager docked at Tallinn, Estonia, photography by NSL Photography

For some time, I’ve written about the need for cruise ships to run muster drills before they sail following any new passenger embarkation, such as in my January column, Cruise ship safety has improved in the year since the Concordia disaster. Today, CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) member ships are following that policy.

Over the years, I’ve been on cruise ships with well carried out muster drills and others where some miscues occurred.

The muster drill is when passengers physically practice where they should go on the ship, in case of emergency, and how to don their life-vests. They learn how they are alerted to an emergency, what procedures they must follow and what contingencies would be available for them under various conditions, etc. Via the drills, crews gain proficiency in properly directing passengers in case of an emergency.

Many miscues involve passengers who prefer to ignore the drills altogether, don’t pay attention to the crew at the muster stations and sometimes make it difficult for other passengers to listen to the crew emergency briefing during the drill. Once, I encountered a glitch in the drill when some new crew members weren’t totally familiar with ship’s procedures and a few times when communication glitches slowed the emergency procedure’s presentation by crew members.

With an upcoming cruise planned, I’ve been giving thought to how cruise ships might improve their muster drills, which I consider critical to passenger safety.

For each muster drill there are specific things which must take place for the drill to accomplish its goal of preparing passengers and crew for potential emergencies:

• 100 percent participation by passengers and crew, and

• Passengers must learn how to quickly go to their muster station, where they will assemble in the case of an emergency, and what to do, and where to go, if that location is unavailable, and

• Passengers must learn how emergencies are signaled, what the ship’s emergency procedures require of them, and what contingencies are available for them in case of problems, etc., and

• Passengers must learn how to don their life-vest, and practice it, to ensure it will be properly worn in an emergency, to make sure it stays on and isn’t a hindrance, and

• The crew must practice emergency procedures, via the muster drill, to ensure passenger safety, in case of an actual emergency.

One of the serious problems of muster drills has, historically, been a few passengers who don’t want to participate in the drills for a variety of reasons. If all passengers are to be safe in an emergency, all passengers must participate.

Passengers who arrive late at the muster station hold up everything at the stations during the drill. To ensure each passenger has the benefit of the drill, the crew must wait until all passengers are at their muster stations to explain emergency procedures and practice with the life vests. The longer drills are delayed for straggler passengers, the more restless passengers become, resulting in their attention fading.

Some ships wait to find out who’s not at the muster stations before trying to round-up wayward passengers. That takes too long. I think more ships need to assign crew to patrol the hallways and staterooms at the start of the drill or actual emergency to ensure every passenger is quickly marshaled to their muster station.

While every ship I’ve been on recently has stationed crew members strategically to help direct passengers to their muster stations, all cruise lines should inform every passenger of their muster station assignment upon check-in and give them a map showing how to get there. This would help ensure passengers assemble at their muster station quickly.

When cruising on a ship new to me, or one I haven’t been on for some time, I make sure I know exactly where my muster station is, well before the muster drill begins.

Once the passengers are assembled at the muster station, it’s important that they actually pay attention to what’s being said about procedures and how to wear their life-vest.

Too many ships have passengers don their life-vest too early in the muster drill. Practicing with the life-vests is often noisy as passengers compare notes, warm and potentially sweaty; if they must be worn for long, and it’s tough to settle everyone down, afterward. I suggest the life-vests’ portion of the drill should be the last thing done at the muster station; once on, while it may be a chore for the crew, every passenger should be checked to ensure they put on their life-vest correctly.

The instructions given to passengers at the muster station are important. They should be as succinct as possible. They must be clear, precise and brief. Too many times I’ve listened to muster drill instructions which seem to go on forever and make little sense.

Visual aids should be used, if possible. Maybe a quiz could be announced to follow the presentation, with a few passengers chosen afterward to answer a question; if right, they are awarded a $25–$50 cruise credit. That would help keep people interested.

Now that the cruise lines are having timely mandatory muster drills, it’s time to maximize their effectiveness.

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  • Aaron

    After the Concordia incident last year, when the discussion of Muster drills came up, I questioned one major thing. As the drills are extremely important, the passengers need to be in a state where they can be 100% focussed on the drill. Yet, the first thing that normally happens on board the ship is a celebratory beverage. I feel that cruise lines should take the step, while it will be extremely unpopular, to not serve alcohol until after the muster drill.

  • John Frenaye

    LOL. That would kill several of Ned’s “birds” with one stone-no booze until after the muster–maybe activate their sail card AT the muster. You can bet they will be there fast, on time, and will take it seriously. Just explain that the sooner the muster is done the sooner the bars will be open. Swipe the card to leave and release the booze (that is easily enough done as that is how they flag people)–you now have a physical/digital record of attendance.

  • Charles Smith

    Maybe they should consider holding the muster and the people that are not at the station within 15 minutes are not able to participate. They are collected and brought to a specific location, (the head of the gangway comes to mind). They are then chastised loudly by the Captain or Staff Captain and have to undergo a private muster drill that takes about twice as long as the regular muster drill. At the end of their muster drill they must sign a paper signifying that they understand the procedures of the muster (a quiz if you will).

    Also make the special muster in a very visible place where the people from the regular muster can identify the slow pokes.

  • Loonbeam

    Oooh, I like this idea.

  • James Penrose

    Those who do not attend and who do not know how to put on a life jacket should be left to their own devices. Darwin has a place reserved for them.

    I’ve been on fifteen cruises. I *know* how to don a life jacket. I can learn where my muster station is in five seconds and would prefer not to spend an hour standing around (there are almost never enough seats) in said place hearing the same vague lecture I’ve heard before.

    I’d be happy to take a written test and get a card saying I can skip the silly thing.

    I *would* like to get instruction on the real safety stuff: How to launch a life boat or life raft and how to work other emergency equipment (like firefighting gear) on board. I’d even be willing to pay for training.

    Of course all that latter will never happen. “Too risky for passengers” (and an actual evacuation would not be risky?) or “Terrorists might use the training to try take over the ship”. (This was an actual answer to my attempt to discuss it once with an official of a cruise line. It’s the standard answer nowadays for almost anything a cruise line or airline doesn’t want to bother with.

  • NSL14

    I like that idea CS. Thanks.

  • NSL14

    Love it John!

  • NSL14

    That would certainly get their attention, wouldn’t it. On my last cruise there was a welcome glass of champagne, if I remember right, then shortly thereafter the muster drill, but this ship only had 132 passengers, so it was easy to do. Right after the muster drill was over, the bar opened. With some of the ships these days, it takes hours to board.

  • NSL14

    I think the ship’s excuse that “Terrorist might use the training to try to take over the ship,” was ludicrous, but I would imagine it would be true that the severe liability exposure which would ensue from such training would stop them from doing that.

  • steve

    Maybe you can do the same thing with your room key. It will let you in until the muster drill and you must swipe it in order to get back in.

  • wendy

    I really like the one about the swiping the sail card at MUSTER after which you have access to the BARS. However, sometimes there are HOURS difference in boarding times…. and WHAT, NO BOOZE!- Also the QUIZ incentive of SBC!. HOLLAND used to chase down those that were not ‘participating’ and give them a SPECIAL ‘invitation’, similar to the chastisement by senior staff members, and perhaps they should be ‘introduced’ to the rest of the PAX, as further HUMILIATION./

  • bodega3

    On my last cruise in Nov, cabin numbers of missing attendees were called over the loud speaker. We couldn’t leave until EVERYONE assigned to our muster station was accounted for.

  • michael anisfeld

    Last week I cruised from Haifa to Greece and back on the Mano Lines ship “Golden Iris” – the muster drill could at best be described as a joke. About 1/3 of the passengers seemed to participate; several came with their life jackets put on upside-down (which no crew member came around to check); one passenger used her jacket as a pillow while she slept in the lounge area (our muster station) during the 20 minutes we sat there. Other than a demo on how to wear the life jacket – that was it. No explanation of where the lifeboats where and how to get there; no crew with checklists to ensure all passengers participated; no explanation of what was the purpose of crew members holding sticks with red numbers on little flags (I assume that this was to lead to me to my assigned life boat, but which lifeboat I had been assigned to was never explained).Some words came over the loudspeakers in Hebrew, Russian and English, but there were not clear enough to be intelligible. In all a total shambles, and I prayed that there would never be an emergency that needed using the lifeboats – luckily there were not..

    Perhaps this shambolic drill was due to the ship being owned by an Israeli company (Mano Shipping); the ship being registered in Panama; the senior crew all Ukrainian, and the lifeboat drill team made up of the Philippine/Indian dining room staff?

    There is an absolute need for an internationally mandated uniform muster drill performed before the ship leaves the dock. And non participating passengers need to be removed from the ship prior to sailing.

    Ned, you are totally correct in your thinking.

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