(Reuters) - The cruise ship disaster off Italy’s coast is drawing fresh scrutiny to the gaps in international safety rules and standards - yet there may be little appetite among the world’s major shipping nations and companies for big changes anytime soon.
While an international regime exists for the training of mariners on everything from car ferries to cruise ships, enforcing that is very much a national affair.
Shipping executives, insurers and maritime attorneys say the problem is one of cost - the cost of more comprehensive training schemes like those used in the military. It is a burden that shipping nations and their largest shipping companies do not want to shoulder.
Given that maritime nations and the industry want to promote growth throughout the world, imposing a heavier “level of training and certification would be perceived as being quite onerous,” said David Loh, a maritime lawyer with Cozen O’Connor in New York and a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy.
The training of mariners on commercial ships is governed by the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention, known in the industry as STCW, which was drafted in 1978 under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations body.
The training convention, which was most recently amended in Manila in 2010, sets out rules for certifications of competency, training requirements and methodology.
But the IMO has little authority to enforce those standards. One major part of the convention - Part B - offers guidance “to assist those involved in educating, training or assessing the competence of seafarers” but is not mandatory under international law.
That has created a vacuum, which national coast guards, merchant marine academies and private marine training schools have attempted to fill with varying degrees of success.
The sponsor of a 2010 U.S. law increasing safety requirements on cruise ships, Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui, said on Tuesday that the grounding of the Costa Concordia illustrates the “critical need for greater regulation.”
“Still more must be done to protect passengers,” Matsui said in a statement, noting that she would continue to pursue greater accountability of the cruise line industry “so that a tragedy like this does not occur again.”
At the lowest crew levels, the IMO convention mandates what is known as Basic Safety Training, which is described as a five-day course of firefighting, survival, safety and responsibility, and first aid. Sailors have to renew this and other training standards every five years.
In the United States, the basic safety course is often up to private training schools, which make it easy to become a mariner - one Florida-based outfit sells the package for $950 and requires only a passport, paper, pen and a highlighter.
There are questions, though, about whether passengers are getting the training they need. Some on the Costa Concordia said they did not get the safety review they expected within 24 hours of boarding - itself a departure from the United States, where passengers are briefed before they set sail.
While Carnival has defended its compliance with rules on safety drills, there is evidence of other lapses. A Reuters reporter who cruised on a sister ship of the Concordia in Italy last summer went nearly 36 hours without a safety briefing after boarding.
Captains go a much more rigorous route than passengers or crew - many cruise ship masters start at a maritime academy, like the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, receiving a college-like education before signing on to a ship as a low-level officer.
But even there, certifications are strictly a national affair, with IMO compliance optional.
“You would ask yourself what kind of training did the captain get? Who was supervising him?” said Lewis Eidson, a Florida trial lawyer who frequently represents injured cruise ship passengers.
For its part, though, the cruise ship industry is standing proudly on its safety record and on global compliance with the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, treaty.
“There’s some people who think that the ships have outgrown the regulations, that ships are getting too large, etc. Actually this industry has a pretty outstanding safety record,” said Michael Crye, vice president for technical and regulatory issues at the Cruise Lines International Association.
“Over the last six years, from 2005 to 2011, we’ve carried
about 100 million passengers and in that time we’ve got 16 people that have lost their lives due to a marine casualty . Sixteen deaths out of 100 million passengers is a pretty excellent safety record,” he said.
At a global level, the London-based IMO concedes its lack of enforcement authority, but at the same time said it is ready to act if needed to improve the international safety framework.
“With the Costa Concordia there will be a full casualty investigation which is likely to include a list of recommendations which may include that the IMO reviews regulations governing safety on passenger ships. That is then put to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee which will then decide how to proceed,” a spokeswoman said Wednesday.
There are, though, many on board vessels who aren’t covered by the training convention - the bartenders and entertainers of the cruise world, the kind of people hired by talent agents rather than mariners.
Getting a job with a cruise line starts with a “manning agency,” which specializes in getting people seagoing jobs. According to Carnival, these agencies are mostly based in Peru, India, Romania, Thailand, Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines.
One such agency, known as Cast-A-Way, lists just four necessary qualifications to apply for a job on its web site: being 21 years old, having a passport, having at least six months to commit to a contract and being fluent in English.
There is no mention of training or experience, or any other particular qualification to working on the high seas.
Even the model collective bargaining agreement the International Transport Workers’ Federation has proposed for unionized seafarers is mostly silent on the training issue, despite the federation’s aggressive stance on workplace safety.
Though most in the industry recognize the inherent problem, few hold out hope for change.
“(The) crews of these ships are largely untrained and are there as entertainers and waiting staff and this can only be addressed by providing training for them which is a totally uncommercial, uneconomic prospect for owners,” said John Dalby, a former oil tanker captain who now runs Marine Risk Management.
Additional reporting by Tim McLaughlin in Boston, Tom Brown in Miami, John Crawley in Washington and Myles Neligan in London. Editing by Martin Howell