Data transparency as a safety feature


It seems to me that situational awareness of cruise ship passengers is not considered important, I have a problem with that. It is perfectly clear that going on a cruise means an increased level of risk. The risk is larger during a storm than it is during calm summer weather. Passengers need truthful information about the service they are purchasing. Informed choices can’t be made without adequate information. I therefore suggest that the amount of safety-related information available to passengers should be significantly increased.

A good place to start is history (examples here are from Finland as this text is a translation of a Finnish original). In 2005, there was a fire on board the M/S Amorella, the crew extinguished it with firm professionalism. For some reason, there was no press release nor were the shareholders informed through a stock exchange release. The situation on board the ship was over at 22.59, at which point the passengers were allowed back inside. There was a stock exchange release by Viking Line next morning at 09.00, dealing with the rising cost of fuel. Yet there was a fire, it was extinguished, and as always in situations like this, something was learned. In this case the investigation resulted in five recommendations which should have raised discussion among the professionals. To be credible when talking about safety history should be visible, smaller and larger mistakes should be acknowledged, and above all the company should show what was learned and how it is showing up in the everyday activities. To be fair to the Viking Line company, it is not alone in its  amnesia; the Silja Line history shows no memory of this steering-loss incident in 1995, nor does the Tallink history remember this attempt to widen the route near Kustaanmiekka. But there is an amusing mention of how the trade in duty free beer is really picking up.

I made a quick search of the web site to see what they tell about safety. Nothing much. The only reference I could find related to occupational safety. From the aviation world, searching or sites produced little of note either. There was slightly more information on the Viking Line web pages. The page could be found by searching for “safety” in the search field. Safety information on the Tallink Silja web pages was more difficult to find and scantier. Personally, I found the lengthier information on the Viking web pages more reassuring, a sign that safety is being taken seriously.

This situation is slightly strange. At least in the case of airlines, safety work is a significant effort and a never-ending process. One would imagine that the same applies to cruise ships. In both cases, it is next to impossible for a customer to check the real situation. Are the companies afraid of losing customers? Maybe. This could certainly happen if the message is ham-fisted: “If our service fails, you can die”. However, by using some money one can buy a presentation that brings out the facts in a more neutral way. At the same time best experts on aviation or maritime safety are likely to be found outside the companies themselves. If safety thinking is opened up on the Internet, it would be possible to draw in researchers essentially for free to comment on weaknesses. A “no communication” model eliminates this possibility.

Safety must be priority number one in all shipping, especially passenger ships. This should be visible in the organization all the way to the top. The board of directors should include a person with a publicly stated overall responsibility for safety. That person should have sufficient experience and clout to actively question weaknesses in the procedures.

At the other end, the safety organization and procedures should be opened to the passengers at all levels. Let us take the concrete example of a fire which requires evacuation. Should those partying in the disco go to their cabins to get warm clothing? This is an important question, since even an hour of waiting in the cold without adequate clothing can seriously hinder a passenger’s ability to act, and can endanger the evacuation process. Perhaps there are procedures for this, but how are we to know this? We cannot know, since we have not been given any information on what kinds of plans the ship’s crew has.

Locations of ships can be seen here and sea ice conditions can be seen here, weather forecasts can be found here. There is plenty of information on parameters that affect the speed, comfort, and safety of the trip. If the shipping company adds information on the ship’s performance and safety, such as any hazardous substances, narrows on the navigation path, navigational information such as a radar picture, and information from the fire warning system, passengers would have almost the same information as the crew on the bridge. By adding information that normally interests the passengers, such as the opening times of the buffet and an opportunity to reserve seats there, there is enough information to create a mobile application that anyone travelling with a smartphone would want to have available.

Detailed information may not interest everyone, but based on this information it is possible to create an index showing the current safety situation. Currently a large part of the problem is the coarse-grained approach, in which there are just two modes: 1) keep on partying, 2) we are in major trouble. Modern technology and enlightened customers would enable much more fine-grained communication.

An application like this would require a mobile device compatible wireless network that operates inside the ship. When such a network exists, it can also be used to transmit emergency information to the passengers. The report on the Isabella accident of 2001 showed problems when dealing with a multilingual environment.  As soon as instructions had been given in Finnish, the clamor level rose, making it difficult to hear announcements made in other languages. In such circumstances, it would be beneficial to have the information available in written form, in multiple languages. Some people may also find it easier to follow written instructions rather than trying to listen to spoken instructions.

I would distribute almost all of the information in the ship’s systems both inside and outside the ship in a standardized format that allows third-party use and would allow the authorities to maintain real-time situational awareness. Due both to long distances and difficult conditions, it can take hours for help to arrive. Proactive reaction to developing incidents can thus significantly alter the outcome. A culture that values autonomy and self-sufficiency above all must be changed. When and where possible self-sufficiency should be the goal, but in case of a deviation from normal one should prepare, automatically, for the need to receive external assistance by communicating all relevant information .

At some point increasing safety will be limited by rising costs. I would like to see analyses in which these limits are challenged. Estimate the cost of a shipboard Wi-Fi system, balance the cost against the advantages, and make a decision based on this balance. It may be necessary to keep some calculations as trade secrets, but even there it is worthwhile to truly analyze what needs to be secret and what does not.

A functioning safety culture requires acceptance of the fact that mistakes will be made and they must be learned from. However, it is impossible for external parties to assess quality of the safety culture if no information on that culture is openly available.Data transparency  as a safety feature