What Happens During a “Man Overboard” Alarm?

Westerdam
Photo By: Phil Comeau (Creative Commons)

The headline can be shocking – “Passenger Plunges Off Cruise Ship” or “Fatal Fall Off Luxury Liner” or even “Death on the High Seas” – but what happens when a man overboard alarm is raised on a cruise ship? Whether the victim is male or female, passenger or crew, or even just the suspicion of a buoy or other floating debris that might be a body, the emergency procedure is the same.

Raising the Alarm

The first step in dealing with a man overboard situation is raising the alarm so emergency teams can take action. Any passenger who sees someone fall overboard should immediately yell out and contact a crew member – any crew member – to initiate the alarm. Noting the deck and location can help the crew pinpoint where they are needed.

As soon as an overboard emergency is reported, word will be relayed to the ship’s bridge and the longitude and latitude location will be noted. It can take several minutes and more than a mile of distance to turn a cruise ship, and it is critical to note the overboard location so search operations can begin.

“Oscar” is the Morse designation for a man overboard emergency, and “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar” or a similar call may be made over the ship’s intercom to alert crew members. Different cruise lines may also have unique codes to use in an overboard situation, or a series of whistles or general alarms may be sounded. These alarms are for the crew, and passengers will not be asked to report to muster stations or otherwise interrupt their activities right away.

Cruise Ship Deck

Photo By: VGB.Studios (Creative Commons)

Emergency Operations

Once the alarm has been initiated, the ship will be slowed and turned so it can return to the incident location. Security footage will be reviewed to see if any camera recorded a fall or any part of the incident, and nearby authorities – the Coast Guard, local navies, nearby ports, other nearby ships – will be alerted so they can assist. A lifeboat or emergency boat will be readied and may be deployed once the proper location is reached. Searchlights will sweep the water if the emergency occurs at night, so any victim, body or debris can be properly seen. If the victim is found, a lifeboat or emergency boat will be used for recovery, and medical care will be offered to combat hypothermia, water inhalation, exposure or other injuries.

It can take several hours for a cruise ship to be cleared from emergency operations. Once other rescue boats have arrived, the cruise ship may be cleared to resume its itinerary even as the search continues.

On Board During an Overboard Emergency

Ship Deck

Cruise ship crews make every effort to keep passengers from being upset during a man overboard alarm. While the saving of life will take precedence, few activities are disrupted and many trivia contests, comedy shows, craft projects, meals and other activities will continue as normal while the designated crew members attend to their emergency duties. Passengers will certainly notice the ship turning and stopping, however, especially as these movements may be more sudden and abrupt than typical sailing motions. The area where the overboard sighting was noted may be roped off and inaccessible to passengers until the situation is resolved.

If the overboard incident is suspected but cannot be verified, a headcount or other accounting of passengers and crew will take place. Passengers may be called by deck, cabin type or by some other organizational means to have their identification checked and shipboard cards scanned. This can ensure that no one from the cruise ship has gone overboard, but emergency operations will continue in case the sighting is of a passenger from another ship or other at sea accident.

When man overboard emergency operations take several hours to complete, it is possible that the ship’s itinerary must be altered. The next port of call may be missed, or the time on shore may be shortened. When this happens, passengers may be offered some minor compensation, especially if they had purchased shore tours, but such compensation is not guaranteed. If the overall itinerary is not affected, no compensation is usually offered because the ship’s activities did remain as normal as possible.

In cases where a man overboard is confirmed, family members or friends of the victim will be assisted by on board care teams, and counseling services may be available. The captain also has the discretion to issue a ship-wide announcement to inform passengers of the incident, but the family’s privacy will be respected if they prefer anonymity.

Understanding Overboard Accidents

Cruise Deck

Photo By: Gail Frederick (Creative Commons)

While it may seem there are frequent overboard emergencies from cruises, there are many safeguards in place to prevent these accidents. Furthermore, there have never been documented cases of passengers or crew members being blown or swept overboard by poor weather, or of minor accidents – a trip and fall, for example – resulting in going overboard. Instead, each investigated incident has been proven to have deliberate factors involved, such as alcohol, domestic violence or deliberate jumping overboard.

There are only 20-30 man overboard incidents reported each year, meaning that for every incident, approximately 1,000,000 passengers safely sail on cruise ships. Every one of those passengers can feel confident that cruise lines have excellent safety and emergency procedures in place should there ever be a need for a man overboard alarm.