Unprecedented Research Project, Ship Evacuations

Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Photo courtesy University of Greenwich

A research team led by the University of Greenwich has carried out an experiment in ship evacuation and safety procedures which could set the benchmark for future maritime law. The research team was made up of 11 members of the European Union, Framework 7 funded project SAFEGUARD.

The University's Fire Safety Engineering Group ran its unprecedented research project on board the Royal Caribbean international cruise ship Jewel of the Seas, in which more than 2,300 passengers took part in a live assembly drill while at sea.

Passengers' response times once the evacuation alarm sounded were measured by one hundred video cameras - which included CCTV, fish-eye, digital and analog cameras - specially positioned by the research team. Passengers also wore specially developed, infra-red tracking tags throughout the half-hour exercise, which allowed researchers to locate each person's exact movements and reconstruct the paths people took as they made their way around the cruise liner to the various assembly points on board.

Head of the research team Professor Ed Galea, who is also Director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, said the experiment on board the Jewel of the Seas had created nothing less than a piece of maritime history. "This assembly trial was unique in several aspects, as we collected data from a large cruise ship, during a virtually unannounced assembly drill and while we were actually at sea," he said.

"The research measured realistic response times to the alarm, at a time when 2,300 passengers were spread over 12 decks. Although passengers had been told the day before that we would be doing a drill, they were largely unprepared - in their staterooms, in the bars, in the gym, in the shops, restaurants and elsewhere - as the alarm sounded.

"All of this represents a significant difference from a typical assembly trial, which is heavily announced beforehand, which takes place before the ship sails, and where many of the passengers are already at the assembly points simply waiting for the drill to begin."

The exercise on board the Jewel of the Seas forms part of the three-year SAFEGUARD project, funded by the EU to the tune of more than $3.8m, which was set up to analyze ship evacuation procedures - in particular the length of time it takes passengers to respond to an alarm - and to improve current evacuation analysis practices.

The SAFEGUARD project is researching evacuation on three types of passenger vessels, including RO-RO ferries with and without passenger cabins, and cruise ships, and involves nine partners from countries including the UK, France, Norway, Finland, Greece and Canada. The SAFEGUARD partners include BMT Group, the University of Greenwich, Principia, Safety at Sea, Bureau Veritas and Marine Institute of Canada, as well as shipping lines Royal Caribbean International, ColorLine and Minoan Lines.

Professor Galea added that the scale of the operation on board the Jewel of the Seas, which took place on 31 July, was vast. The exercise required nine months of planning, while at least six months will also be needed for frame-by-frame analysis of the video footage, to measure the reaction times of passengers as they made their way to assembly points. Questionnaires filled in by passengers on board at the time of the drill will also provide extra data for the researchers to analyze.

The team's intense preparation paid off, however, as nearly all passengers co-operated with the assembly drill and wore their tags throughout the exercise.

"It was exhausting and exciting to organize this project on the Jewel of the Seas, and the results will be far-reaching,” Professor Galea said. "The response time data and the validation data we collected from the project is truly unique, and will help set an international standard for ship-based evacuation models in the future.

"Nothing on this scale is likely to be attempted again. The research conducted by the SAFEGUARD team will help shape future maritime law and, ultimately, by informing the design of better and safer ships, will help save lives."

Tracy Murrell, Director Maritime Safety and Compliance for Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, said: "We are extremely pleased with the success of the exercise onboard Jewel of the Seas. The shipboard team embraced the spirit of the exercise and assisted in all aspects to ensure flawless execution. Royal Caribbean is proud to be part of the ongoing efforts to improve safety onboard passenger ships and looks forward to learning from the results of the project."

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