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“Juuust a bit outside”

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Over the past few days I watched with much fascination the unfolding of a needless tragedy, the sinking of the Costa Concordia.  During the first few hours, tweets and reports of the ship’s sinking surfaced in the news.  I retweeted a few posts, impressed with the quality of the information contained in the 140 character messages and the attached links. I mentioned to my wife (the all-knowing one) that this was going to “go ugly early”.  At first, I assumed a mechanical malfunction of the propulsion system must have allowed the ship to beach on the rocks.  It now appears my slant towards granting benefit of the doubt was perhaps a wee bit generous.

The captain of the Costa Concordia now stands accused of purposefully cancelling the ship’s pre-programmed route to glide up the coastline of a nearby island to show off the ship.  We all know what happened next…whammo.  But, who could have predicted the reported lack of “command presence”, both figuratively and literally by the ship’s captain?  Audio recordings and interviews with passengers, crew and the Italian Coast Guard indicate a total collapse of command and control in the following hours.

The absolute power and control a captain has over his vessel at sea is well-known.  So is the legendary expectation (thanks to the Titanic Captain Edward Smith) that the captain should be the last remaining on a sinking ship.  The perception was recently reinforced when “Sulley” made sure he was the last person out of ditched US Air Flight 1549, after he made a last pass through the cabin.

The finger-pointing and blame game began even as the first passengers were reaching shore, and has only escalated with time. It will likely take months, if not years for the truth to emerge on exactly what happened and why.  But, as a chief officer who has served as the “captain” in navigating hairy emergency events, I identified a few key things that can sink an incident commander’s (IC) boat just as fast as the Costa Concordia’s captain’s.

Lack of adequate “size up” It must have been quite a shock to the ship’s command staff when their kazillion ton vessel suddenly tilted over, made god-awful noises and cames to a grinding stop.  However, I’m guessin’ that sitting on the bridge of a ship so large insulates you from what is going on below.  The passengers and crew below likely heard and felt the collision much harder.  The question is, were these observations communicated in an organized and comprehensible fashion to the ship’s leadership? Did someone from the ship’s senior leadership descend into the ship’s lower spaces to get eyeballs on the situation and talk to engineering staff?  Initial Coast Guard recordings and ship announcements to passengers indicate that the grounding may have been mistaken by the crew for some kind of major generator/electrical problem.  Whoops…. “juuust a bit outside” (nod to famous baseball announcer Bob Uecker) on that size up.

As an Incident Commander, do you perform a 360’ size up of every incident?  Do you take the initial reports and information at face value and act solely on this information?  Do you communicate quickly, succinctly and rationally with your command staff and company officers on the fireground?  Do you use ICS procedures on every single emergency event your agency responds to?

Placing yourself before others GPS tracking showed the ship’s course deviated significantly from the programmed route.  Why?  Did the captain deviate from the route to impress someone he knew who lived on the island? The investigation will reveal the truth. Regardless, placing your own interests ahead of those you are responsible for during an emergency can come back to bite you.  First responders have highly tuned bulls*** detectors, and will call you on it in a nano-second.

Disregard for safety The passengers had not yet participated in the required lifeboat drill, even after a full day at sea.   Crew members were confused about abandon ship procedures, and did not take charge in directing passengers.  There are likely 3000 stories of confusion and panic to be told.  My first question was, what is company policy? Was it followed?

So, IC’s, let me ask you, when was the last time your crews participated in a Mayday drill?  Would the reaction and performance of your crews be better than this ship’s crew? Really?  Gut check time. I heard of a fire department that runs a Mayday drill after every structure fire- before they leave the scene.  Now, that’s safety training.

Abandoning ship Perhaps the most damning accusation in the public’s mind (certainly mine) is the fact that the captain left the ship before most of the passengers got off.  He denies leaving the ship before the passengers. But, I’m now hearing he was being questioned on land well before the surviving passengers were brought to shore. He’s toast…

How does an IC “abandon ship” on his crews? By not having the courage to make the tough choices. Sticking with doing what is right, even when crews are rebelling in the heat of the moment on the fireground, takes courage.  Just ask the Worcester warehouse IC, who knowing six firefighters were trapped in the bowels of a blazing warehouse physically barred other firefighters from diving in.  He didn’t abandon anyone. He stuck it out to the bitter end, saving those that could be saved.

While this spectacular tragedy plays out, Captain Francesco Schettino’s actions serve as a sober reminder of what happens when you fail in leadership.  As incident commanders, we must learn from his mistakes and do everything we can to make sure we avoid running our organizations aground and leave no one behind when we confront our worst day.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.wingineering.com Gary Oldham

    Unsurprisingly, another great post and analysis.

    I’m impressed by the FD that does a mayday drill before leaving the scene of each structure fire. Now *there’s* leadership!

  • Ellen Rossano

    Great questions, Chief!

    As a former USCG enlisted, and married to a retired USN Chief Engineer, this tragedy has been a major topic of conversation here. The first reports brought us to make similar guesses – must have been a major mechanical malfunction. When I signed off of Twitter that evening, the ship was listing at 20 degrees.

    I was shocked the next morning when I saw that the ship was resting on its side, but nothing shocked me more than the arrest of the captain for abandoning ship. No matter what caused this accident, that was the last thing I ever expected to hear.

    Most damning to me is that Captain Robert Bosio, Capt. of the Costa Serena (sister ship of the Concordia,) was onboard the Concordia. He was catching a ride to his hometown of Savona. He stayed on board long after Capt. Schettino departed, coordinating the rescue of scores of women and children. That he calls Schettino “disgraceful” says more to me than any inquest will ever reveal.

    We talked here about how we might react, or hope to react, given the circumstances. If training is done and drilled, one would hope that practice would rise up and push fear aside. Training and practice are the reasons Capt. Sullenberger gave when asked what he was thinking about when he landed his aircraft on the Hudson.

    Schettino is ruined. He will never work again as a ship’s commander. Costa Cruises has allegedly said they will not pay his legal fees, which may well bankrupt his family. He will never be able to backpedal from his claim that he “fell into the lifeboat.”

    This is a good lesson in the importance of training and exercising, and training some more.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.