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Changes likely as US Coast Guard mulls new regulations for cruise ships


By William Lusk

Director of Operations, Homeland Security Outlook


The US Coast Guard has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act (CVSSA) of 2010 as it takes a fresh look at new regulations for onboard deck rail height, hailing devices, crime scene preservation training and other items to promote safety and security on cruise ships.

Cruising is a convenient, fun and cost-effective method for vacationers worldwide to explore new and exciting destinations. It is no secret that the Caribbean is the cruising capital of the world, with more ships and passengers sampling its tropical beaches and flavor than any other region. It is estimated by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) that, as of September 2014, the Caribbean has an incredible 35.5 per cent of scheduled bed-days of cruise ships worldwide – an impressive capacity when you consider that the next highest capacity market, the Mediterranean, is at only 19.5 per cent.

The outlook is bright for the cruise industry, especially in 2015. CLIA projects an estimated 23 million passengers on large oceangoing cruise ships this year, coupled with more than $4 billion in additional investment in 22 new ships totaling approximately 22,000 beds. Cruise lines and their ships seem to be accelerating in growth and potential. By some estimates, the annual economic value of the cruise industry in the US exceeds $20 billion.

With so many vessels (over 420 CLIA-affiliated ships alone) and so many passengers (over 482,000 beds) on the high seas, just as with airliners or land vacations, incidents will occur that will affect the security and safety of passengers onboard. Unfortunately for this industry, there has been a series of recent high-profile accidents involving fires, sinkings and man-overboard situations leading to a constant bombardment of the industry by the media.

CVSSA in brief

To help address the public’s growing concerns and to mitigate safety and security threats posed to cruise ships and their passengers, the US Congress carried out extensive research which found that cruise passengers are largely unaware of their vulnerability to crime while on cruises and lack a basic understanding of their rights on the high seas. To help address these concerns, Congress wrote and approved the CVSSA.

The CVSSA outlines 15 basic safety and security requirements for vessels with a capacity of more than 250 passengers that embark or disembark passengers in the US. Security personnel of merchant ships and ports in regions heavily transited by cruise ships should be aware of several of these provisions. The components of the CVSSA are summarized as follows:


  1. Cruise vessels must have a rail deck height of 42 inches above the cabin deck.
  2. Each stateroom door must feature a peephole to provide visual identification.
  3. Each stateroom door must have a security latch and time-sensitive key technology.
  4. Cruise ships must have cameras or detectors to assist with man-overboard situations*.
  5. Cruise ships must be equipped with acoustic hailing/warning devices for communication when operating in high-risk waters*.
  6. Ships must have an onboard video recording system to assist in documenting crimes. Copies of videos must be furnished to police/investigating agencies on request*.
  7. Each passenger must be provided with a guide describing security and medical services onboard and relevant US embassy/consulate contact information.
  8. Cruise lines must have adequate sexual assault medication and staff onboard.
  9. All information regarding sexual assault treatment must be kept confidential.
  10. Cruise lines must provide contact information for law enforcement agencies and complimentary private phone and internet for sexual assault victims.
  11. Cruise lines must have established policies detailing which crew members may have access to passenger staterooms, and when.
  12. A logbook is to be maintained onboard with details of complaints of CVSSA crimes and large thefts. Vessel owners must report CVSSA crimes to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  13. CVSSA crime statistics are to be posted online, maintained by the US Coast Guard.
  14. Crew training of crime scene preservation may be certified by the US Maritime Administration.
  15. After standards are established, no cruise vessel may enter a US port unless there is at least one crew member certified as having completed training in crime scene preservation.


By the time the CVSSA was enacted into law in 2010, most if not all cruise lines and cruise ships were in compliance with most of the 15 provisions of the legislation. The three components of the CVSSA with asterisks – cameras or detectors to assist with man-overboard situations; acoustic hailing/warning devices; onboard video recording systems – have not been widely implemented or require further rule development owing to the complexity and cost involved.

US Coast Guard’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

On 16 January the US Coast Guard issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NRPM) which solicits public comment as part of its process of amending its regulations.

NRPMs are an outlet for experts, industries affected, advocacy groups and the general public to voice their opinions and contribute their perspective during the formal rule-making process.

The NRPM is designed to address these three remaining provisions of the CVSSA which have not been widely implemented as well as to provide details for other mandates. Public comments are open until 16 April and can be submitted by telephone, fax, or online via

Cameras for man-overboard detection

According to Professor Ross Klein, of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, there were at least 22 incidents of passenger and crew overboard or missing in 2014 alone. Since the year 2000 there have been at least 246 such incidents. Admittedly, the likelihood of falling overboard from a cruise ship is small; most incidents involve the highly foolish, depressed or incapacitated. Nevertheless, the CVSSA calls for cameras or detectors designed to minimize the response time once a person has fallen in the water, as such cases can go unnoticed for hours.

Some cruise ships do have cameras, mostly thermal or closed-circuit, that can record images of objects or people falling overboard. It is widely believed, however, that these cameras cannot be relied on to detect these incidents as they happen and trigger an alarm, especially in harsh sea conditions. The wording of the CVSSA requires this technology to be placed onboard “to the extent that such technology is available” – a key phrase, because reliable technology is not currently available, according to many in the cruise industry.

Based on data provided by cruise lines, it is estimated by the US Government that the cost to fit each ship with man-overboard detection systems would be between US$ 62,500 and US$ 700,000 not including an estimated annual five per cent maintenance cost for these systems. This widely spread cost estimate is probably due to the unique dimensions of cruise ships.

The NRPM requires a cruise vessel to have a man-overboard detection system, a man-overboard camera system or a combination of both, intended to sound an immediate alarm to alert the ship’s crew. Records must be kept at least 14 days after the voyage and, in the case of a man-overboard situation, a further 120 days.

Onboard hailing/warning devices

There have been several documented incidents of cruise ships being attacked by pirates while traveling in high risk seas of the world, particularly the Horn of Africa. The CVSSA requires that vessels transiting such waters have an onboard acoustic hailing device to provide emergency communication around the vessel when operating in designated areas defined by the US Coast Guard.

Although there have been documented incidents of cruise ships using acoustic hailing devices as weapons to repel boarders, this provision of the CVSSA is intended for these technologies to be used for communication purposes. The US Coast Guard, according to the NRPM, takes no position in using such technologies as weapons to repel boarders.

LRAD Corporation is a leading developer of mass communication and acoustic hailing technologies. David Schnell, vice president of business development for LRAD, has advised that several cruise lines, including Carnival and Norwegian, have purchased their systems, although sales to the industry have so far been small in volume. The technology allows cruise ships to provide a clear, focused and powerful broadcast such as a warning. “If you can change someone’s behavior at a long distance, you buy yourself time and space, and ultimately you’ll win,” said Mr Schnell.

According to Report GAO-14-43 by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US Coast Guard defines high risk waters as areas particularly susceptible to terrorism, piracy and armed robbery such as the Gulf of Aden or the Strait of Malacca. Coast Guard officials advise that many in the public define ‘high risk waters’ as high risk terrorist targets such as New York Harbor or waterways with dense recreational vessel traffic that pose a threat to larger vessels. It is this with regard to this uncertainty of defining ‘high risk waters’ that the US Coast Guard is seeking public comment in the NRPM. Further, since a ‘high risk’ area may be determined after a cruise vessel has already entered it, the US Coast Guard proposes to require such equipment at all times.

Onboard video recording system

The CVSSA requires cruise vessels within its scope to have a video surveillance system to document crimes onboard. Further, law enforcement officials must have access to video surveillance footage performing an official investigation upon request.

The NRPM from the US Coast Guard would require cruise vessels to retain the video for two weeks, as is the current industry practice. However, the NRPM would call for these vessels to retain video data of a particular incident for an additional 120 days after a crime is reported.

These cameras would be in public areas of vessels shared by passengers and crew such as open decks, bars and restaurants, casinos and other points of interest. Since each vessel is unique in design, size, layout and clientele, CLIA has asked for a risk-based approach to regulations of onboard video recording systems.

The way forward

Overall, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act is designed to be the first and most comprehensive legislation affecting cruise passengers who embark or disembark passengers in the US. It is predicted that the CVSSA will affect a total of 147 cruise vessels and will cost government and industry a combined US$ 8.4 million a year to implement.

According to Stephen L. Caldwell, former GAO director of maritime and supply chain security issues, who was responsible for their recent report on CVSSA, there will continue to be disagreements between the cruise line industry and cruise victim advocates about the CVSSA’s call for man-overboard technology. The Coast Guard’s proposed ‘performance based’ rule takes a flexible approach and allows vessel owners and operators the discretion to determine the suitability and reliability of available systems, so the various parties can have honest but different views on how to best implement the requirement and on how much is enough protection.

All members of the public are encouraged to comment on and contribute to the NRPM, particularly those with a keen interest or particular expertise in cruise ship operation, safety and security. Armed with more knowledge and perspective, the US Coast Guard can better implement the mandates called for by the CVSSA.