Comments on the Costa Concordia Grounding 13 January 2012. Part 1 The Ship Evacuation Process — written by Prof Ed Galea, 20 January 2012 11:00

As in most disasters of this type, so soon after the incident, information concerning the nature of this incident is far too sketchy to draw any firm conclusions.  Indeed, at the time of writing there are more questions than answers.  In my next few blogs I would like to make a few general comments related to issues associated with ship evacuation, and based on media accounts, attempt to put together a picture of what we currently know.  Finally, I would like to make some tentative comments about the incident and its repercussions for passenger ship safety.   In the first blog I want to discuss the ship evacuation process.

Evacuating a large passenger ship, even in ideal conditions, is a complex and dangerous task.  Large passenger ships are normally evacuated in a two phase process, first the assembly phase and then the abandonment phase.  Each phase of the evacuation is initiated by a command from the Master of the vessel i.e. the Captain. 

 a) Assembly Phase

On the command of the Captain, usually designated by seven short and one long blast on the ships horn, the assembly phase can commence.  In the assembly phase, passengers are instructed by the crew to go to their designated assembly station, this is usually designated by a letter e.g. A, B, C, etc.  The assembly stations are usually spread over one or two decks and can be indoors (the norm) but can also be out doors (not so common).  How the ship conducts the assembly process is down to the company operating the ship and the Captain and so may differ from ship to ship.  For example, some ship operating companies assemble passengers by sending them direct to their designated assembly stations where they will be issued with life jackets.  Other ship operating companies will assemble passengers by first sending them to their cabins to collect life jackets, warm clothing and any essential medication, from their cabin, the passengers then make for their designated assembly station. 

During the assembly phase, crew should be stationed at key locations throughout the vessel to help direct passengers to their cabin and/or assembly station.  Once in the assembly station, passengers will don their lifejackets, or have lifejackets issued to them by the crew assigned to the assembly station. 

How long should the assembly process take?  As part of the ship design process, the duration of the assembly phase is determined through computer simulation, using evacuation simulation software such as maritimeEXODUS (see  The maximum time for the assembly process determined by computer simulation for a ship the size of the Costa Concordia, as set out in IMO MSC circ 1238, is 48 minutes.  It should be noted that according to IMO MSC circ 1238, the simulation of the assembly process is intended to benchmark the evacuation capability of the ship and so an ideal benchmark scenario is used in the assessment.  The benchmark scenarios currently used assume that the ship is in an upright condition and in dead calm conditions.  A safety factor of 25% is added to the predicted time to take account of all the factors that are missed out in ideal benchmark scenario, such as fire and heel and the inherent simplifications in the simulation software. So in reality it should take no more than 1 hour to assemble a ship the size of the Costa Concordia.

My research group (FSEG) is part of an EU FP7 project called SAFEGUARD (see paper 252 at  As part of project SAFEGUARD we have performed five semi-unannounced ship assemblies at sea (not along side as is usual practice for the ship assembly drill).  One of these assemblies was on a ship of roughly similar size to the Costa Concordia but with fewer passengers.  The assembly time for this ship took was about 30 minutes — in ideal conditions but unannounced.   So if the assembly process had started before the ship had taken on a severe heel, I estimate that it should be possible to assemble the Costa Concordia passengers in about 40 to 60 minutes.

b) Abandonment Phase

On the command of the Captain, the abandonment phase can commence.  Starting the abandonment phase is not taken lightly, as boarding and lowering lifeboats filled with people, even in ideal situations, is not a trivial task and one with its own inherent dangers.  This is why it is the Captain who gives the command to commence the abandonment phase.  Furthermore, the abandonment phase can commence before all the passengers have assembled if necessary.  As with the assembly phase, the manner in which the ship conducts the abandonment phase is not set down in regulation, but each shipping company will have its own procedures.  Some companies may board those in greatest need first, perhaps the injured.  Others will board people in no particular order, just simply the order in which they turn up.  From the assembly station a member of the crew assigned to the assembly station will take a group of passengers to the lifeboat and will assist them to board the lifeboat, there will usually be a member of the crew already in the lifeboat to assist passengers as they board.  Large modern lifeboats have a capacity of up to 150 passengers.  Even larger lifeboats with twice the capacity are used on the super large cruise ships. Once the lifeboat is fully loaded, the crew assigned to the boat station will lower the lifeboat and once in the water it is expected to move away from the ship.  However, if the ships angle of heel is greater than 20 degrees, the lifeboats cannot be launched.  Lifeboats are normally lowered into the water only when the ship has come to a full stop.

The entire process of boarding all the passengers into the lifeboats and launching all the lifeboats should take no more than 30 minutes according to IMO SOLAS regulations.

c) Assembly Drills

Assembly drills are mandatory on any passenger ship which undertakes a journey of more than 24 hours.  According to IMO SOLAS regulations, the drill must be undertaken within 24 hours of passenger embarkation.

d) Lifeboats and Lifejackets

Under IMO SOLAS regulations, modern large passenger ships must have lifeboat and liferaft capacity for 125% of the people on board.  There must also be lifejackets for 105% of the people on board.  Lifeboats cannot be launched once the angle of heel exceeds 20 degrees and lifeboats cannot be launched while the ship is still underway.

e) Crew

Most of the ships crew, including waiters, entertainers, bar staff and cabin attendants will have a role in the evacuation process.  They will be positioned at key locations throughout the ship to direct passengers to their cabins and assembly stations, they will be in the assembly stations to manage the passengers, they will be at the lifeboats to assist the boarding of the lifeboats, they will control the lowering of the lifeboats and they will be in the lifeboats to control the lifeboats.   In addition to the assembly drills, which are also a form of training for the crew, the crew will have assembly drill training (without passengers ensuring that they know where to go) and lifeboat drills were they practice releasing and lowering the lifeboats.  Training sessions for crew must occur on a weekly basis, and each member of the crew must undergo training at least once per month (according to SOLAS regulations).

f) Women and Children First

There are no IMO regulations that states women and children must be given preference in boarding lifeboats.  It is not clear where this code of practice originates, but it is suggested to have arisen out of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852.  The Birkenhead was carrying troops to South Africa when she struck an uncharted rock and started to sink.  The soldiers commanding officer gave the order for the soldiers on board to stand firm and let the women and children, of which there where seven women and 13 children, board the two lifeboats that had successfully been launched.  The soldiers did as they were told and most perished.  The bravery of the Birkenhead soldiers is remembered in the Rudyard Kipling poem (1896) “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”:  

“To stand and be still

To the Birken’ead drill

Is a damn tough bullet to chew.”

The Titanic disaster of 1912 was another example where the “women and children first” tradition was upheld.  The combination of insufficient lifeboats and the Birkenhead tradition, meant that disproportionally more men then women died in this disaster. 

The concept of “Women and children first” is not mandated and it is not necessarily such a good idea.  Most emergency evacuation situations are characterised as being time critical.  In such situations every second counts and can literately make the difference between life and death.   In ship based disasters, the quicker you can get the lifeboats loaded and launched the better.  If you had to prioritise people at the boarding stage this is simply going to waste precious time and may delay the launching of the lifeboats.  Furthermore, family groups have very strong emotional and social bonds.  It is difficult to break these bonds.  To separate a family group on the basis of gender (the men folk being left behind) at the point of boarding the lifeboat would not be easy and is likely to be met with opposition, again delaying the boarding process.

Perhaps Somerset Maugham was a little ahead of his time concerning the position he took on the “Women and Children First” tradition.  He is quoted as once saying:

“I much prefer travelling in non-British ships.

There’s none of that nonsense about women and children first”

If you would like to know more about this, try listening to my BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour (17/01/12 10:00am) interview from

Also check out the Guardian website article, “Costa Concordia: are women still prioritised over men in evacuation procedures?” at: 

g) Panic

I am not going to say anymore about panic, but I refer you to:

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