The Truth About Cruise Ship Fires: Will Cruise Lines Ever Be Able To Truly Prevent Them?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Last month, our cruise ship accident lawyers wrote about an interesting turn of events in the maritime industry. Carnival Cruise Lines, the “Fun Ship” itself, announced it was going to undertake steps to renovate its fleet to improve of onboard safety features, especially those to protect against fires. Back in February, Carnival was criticized for the fire onboard the Triumph, which left upwards of 4,000 people stranded in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico without working toilets, meager food provisions and amidst deplorable sanitary conditions.

The fire on the Triumph broke out in the ship’s engine room following a leak in a fuel line, but while crews did managed to contain it, the fire knocked out power to the entire ship and since the Triumph did not have any backup generators it was let powerless and adrift.

So, after months of the Triumph being called the “Floating Petri Dish,” the Fun Ship-turned-Fright Ship announced it was going to undergo a massive safety enhancement project, which would significantly improve onboard safety for both passengers and crew members.

Among the improvements, the line said it would be introducing special fire safety technology as well as emergency power options to prevent a disaster like the one aboard the Triumph from happening again.

Included in the safety upgrade, Carnival announced all of its 24 vessels will be getting a series of new emergency generators to ensure some power will be available in the event of a major disaster, like a fire. This is just phase one. The next part of the project involves installing a secondary emergency backup system fleet-wide that will allow cooling systems for food provisions to stay working as well as improve communication for ship officials with other maritime vessels if a ship were to experience a major mishap.

Additionally, Carnival stated it would be introducing a series of special fire systems, which will not only help detect fires, but prevent and contain them as well. Finally, the cruise line spoke about implementing double redundant engine rooms fleet-wide so if by some chance all the other new safety features fail, the vessel will be less likely to lose power the way the Triumph did.

Unfortunately, we have yet to see any of these safety upgrade be put into effect on any Carnival vessel.  But what we do know is that the need for fire improvement protocols should be at an all-time high for the entire cruise industry.  Just two days ago, a  cruise ship fire erupted onboard Royal’s Grandeur of the Seas. This shows that a fire can happen on any ship and at any time.

While each cruise ship fire is unique and obviously leads to different outcomes – some causing minor damage while others leading to severe or even fatal injuries – bottom line, all fires are bad, even the little ones that no one finds out about and which are immediately put out.

If you are on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean and a severe fire breaks out, what can you really do?  It’s not like an outbreak of Norovirus which you can try to avoid contacting by staying in your cabin and washing your hands frequently. No, a fire happens suddenly, without warning and can sweep across an entire vessel very quickly, giving only limited time for the crew to fight it and to prepare for the need to execute an evacuation if it can’t be contained and put out.

Some fires even lead to explosions, like the incident aboard the SS Norway 10 years ago, on May 25, 2003, in which a fire caused a boiler explosion, leading to the deaths of 8 crew members and the injuries of 17 others.

Fires are EXTREMELY SERIOUS and should not be taken lightly. Every single time a ship docks in port, crews are required to perform a thorough search to look for any sign of possible equipment glitches or failure. Unfortunately, what happens a lot of the time is that there is insufficient time to do this thoroughly enough and potential problems are sometimes overlooked. Crews only have between three to four hours to inspect the ship and it’s easy to miss something minor.

Yet, there are times in which crew members neglect to check systems accurately and because of their negligence, accidents occur. When it’s negligence that’s to blame, a cruise line may be found at fault for the incident and liable to pay damages to the injured victims, which, of course, they usually try to limit.

So can a cruise ship fires ever be 100% preventable? Probably not, however, there is a VERY GOOD CHANCE more can be done to limit their occurrence and reduced the damage they cause.