The cruise industry has come a long way in its approach to human-services response to crises and emergencies over the past decade. That was the conclusion of cruise line professionals and the victims of cruise-related tragedies at the first International Human Assistance Symposium that opened June 7 in Miami.

Organized by the Family Assistance Foundation, IHAS was created to enhance industry response to emergencies and disasters. Sponsored by shoreside services organization Intercruises, the IHAS covers the cruise, aviation and energy and retail industries.

At the cruise breakout session a panel of cruise line care team professionals discussed the elements of an effective industry response to accidents and emergencies. Moderated by Andrew Baldwin of Carnival UK, the panel consisted of Ray Gonzalez, manager of care team services for Carnival Cruise Lines; Steve Williams, director of medical services for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, and Alice Cain-Moore, guest relations manager and head of care team training for Norwegian Cruise Line.

The panel represented a total of 46 years’ experience in care team management and training, covering 79 cruise ships serving 240,000 guests and crewmembers with more than 10,000 care team members at sea and ashore across the four cruise companies. Since the care team concept was implemented by the cruise industry in 1999, it has grown into an institutionalized business process that now includes full-time training and management positions at all the major lines.

The care team practice now includes ongoing training of shipboard crew, shoreside employee volunteers and is expanding to include port agents and ground operators who are often the first responders in an emergency. Carnival Cruise Lines’ care team currently comprises 523 members, including four full time staff and 519 employee volunteers.

The panel emphasized that while the lines may be competitors in the business arena, when it comes to emergency response, they cooperate, activating local resources and support teams to respond as soon as possible to any emergency situation.

“Cruise lines cooperate with each other,” said Gonzalez. “It’s about caring, not competing.”

Carnival has expanded it care team training well beyond employees and crew to include consular and embassy personnel in Mexico and the Caribbean, said Gonzalez, as well as port agents and ground operators throughout the line’s primary operational region.

Cain-Moore stressed that the goal in creating an effective care team is to include diverse crewmembers all over the world. Often that means including crewmembers from lower positions who have essential language skills, as well as crew team leaders with the experience, training and judgment to take the lead in an emergency.

Williams noted that in cases where there are mass casualties or fatalities, care team members not only have to address the needs of the injured and their families, but also other guests who may have been psychologically impacted by the event.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to tease out who is medically impacted and who is psychologically impacted,” said Williams.

The physical and psychological tolls from on humans of disasters and tragedies were starkly described at the cruise survivor panel. The first-person stories of Mark Brimble, George and Doreen Brenzy, and George and Charlotte Vaughan demonstrated both the need for effective human-assistance response and how quickly the cruise industry has increased its capacity to provide support to victims and survivors.

Brimble’s ex-wife Diane died on the first night of a P&O cruise she took with her sister, daughter and niece in 2002. Diane Brimble was found naked on the floor of the stateroom of four male passengers, the victim of apparent sexual abuse, though the cause of death was not obvious.

Following the discovery of Brimble’s body, the cruise line proceeded to respond in what has become a textbook case of how not to respond. From demonstrating a callous disregard to Brimble’s family (her daughter had to identify the body in the ship’s morgue) by putting them ashore alone in Noumea, French Polynesia, to failing to secure key evidence, to not communicating with family members in Australia, P&O thoroughly botched the job.

In the end, it took 2.5 years for the family to experience a measure of closure. A coroner’s investigation and subsequent trial exposed the fact that Diane Brimble had died from an overdose of the date-rape drug GBH. Incriminating photographic evidence made it clear that she was sexually abused before being left dead on the stateroom floor.

Because of the cruise line’s failure to secure essential evidence, the main perpetrator of the crime was convicted only of bringing dangerous drugs on board the cruise ship and his accomplices pled to lesser charges.

Mark Brimble’s tireless efforts to bring media attention to the case as he sought to find out what happened to his ex-wife eventually forced the cruise industry to examine its approach to human-assistance response and spawned the development of the care team principles it practices today.

Still, Brimble suggests passengers need to understand that cruise ships are not immune to crime.

“Passengers assume when they are boarding a ship that they are provided the same degree of safety and security as on land,” he said. “I’m not convinced that is actually true.”

The Brenzy family’s story involved the death of their 17-year-old son on a cruise aboard Carnival Pride. George Brenzy Jr. was born with only two chambers in his heart instead of the usual four. Open-heart surgery at age 5 enabled him to lead a normal childhood.

The family took their first cruise for Christmas from Baltimore to the Bahamas. On Christmas Eve, the family took formal portraits, attended a comdy show and opened presents in their cabin. Sometime during the night George Jr. died in his sleep.

Because the death occurred in Bahamian waters, the couple was forced to leave the ship and Bahamian authorities took control of the body to perform an autopsy. By 5 p.m. that day Carnival’s care team had arrived from Miami.

The team saw to the family’s needs, arranged a memorial mass for the son and worked with a local funeral home to return the body to Pittsburgh.

“I can’t tell Carnival Cruise Lines thanks enough for what they did in our time of need,” said George Brenzy.

When asked by the moderator what was the one thing that helped the most in their time of need, George Brenzy said, “Knowing that Carnival had something in place to help us like that.”

George Vaughan began his presentation by telling the audience, “We’re here today so that we can help you help someone else the way we were helped.”

He and his wife Charlotte took a Celebrity Summit cruise to celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary in 1999. On the second day of the cruise the ship called at Dominica. Charlotte Vaughan took a shopping excursion while George went on to shoot photos of a nearby church.

The bus Charlotte was traveling on had a mechanical malfunction and crashed into the side of a mountain. Twenty-seven people were injured, three critically. Charlotte was thrown through the windshield and was in the worst condition of any of the passengers.

There were significant logistical challenges to getting Celebrity’s care team to Dominica. The island’s airport is not lighted, so planes could only land during daylight hours. The U.S. Coast Guard stood by offshore to provide evacuation by sea, if necessary.

Within 68 hours, Celebrity had evacuated a comatose Charlotte to Miami’s Ryder Trauma Center, one of the nation’s leading trauma facilities. Meanwhile Celebrity’s care team saw to George Vaughan’s every need, bringing in family members from Texas for support.

“The care team in Miami served us like a cocoon,” said George Vaughan. “They protected us from the world.”

After 10 weeks on a respirator Charlotte still had not revived, and the family made the difficult decision to remove her from life support. She began to breathe on her own, and soon arrangements were made to take her home to Texas.

After an additional 4.5 months Charlotte left the hospital, but that was just the beginning of a new ordeal.

“She was like a 60-year-old baby,” said Vaughan. “She had to learn to speak, to walk, to write and everything else.”

The Vaughans developed a relationship with the Celebrity care team that continues 13 years later.

“I have never asked why, but we were blessed with the people who have been brought into our lives,” said Vaughan. “We can never thank them enough for what they have done.”

The session ended with a standing ovation for the survivors.

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