In April 1990, the Scandinavian Star, a large passenger ship operating in Europe, caught on fire with a loss of 158 lives. Not since the 1960s had there been such high loss of life – which begged the question, "How could a ship built to the latest standards have resulted in this catastrophe?”

The investigation into the fire determined that many had died trying to find their way out in smoke filled corridors that led them to ‘dead ends’. Those who survived had relayed that the smoke alarms did not alert them to the emergency quickly enough to properly evacuate them to safety. The results of the investigation1 were submitted to a working group to determine what could be done to upgrade the requirements for existing ships. This would be a major change to the traditional way of only applying new requirements to new ships. There was a long history of opposing retroactive requirements. When retroactive fire safety requirements had been previously imposed by the international community, some passenger liners had been put out of business, most notably the Queen Mary. It was still a very sore memory.

Further, those who had the power to make changes to the requirements did not agree as to what changes should be made or what was wise, both technically as well as politically feasible. The strategy was to start the discussion with the ‘easy’ issues. Changing the design of new ships to eliminate ‘dead end’ corridors was readily accepted for all new ships. But, eliminating them on existing ships was not financially feasible. ‘Low-location lighting’ (LLL) was proposed as a possible solution. Those speaking on behalf of their governments did not all have experience with these systems. Visits were arranged to testing facilities with smoke filled corridors so representatives could experience the synthetic fear of finding a way out in a simulated smoke filled corridor. Agreement was reached that retrofitting LLL on existing ships could help prevent passengers from entering dead end corridors. That single initial agreement opened the door to considering other retroactive requirements.

Fire safety professionals were overwhelmingly in support of retrofitting both smoke detectors and sprinklers on all passenger ships in order to save lives. The regulations at that time required either sprinklers or smoke detectors, but not both. A requirement to retrofit sprinklers and smoke detectors on every large passenger ship was destined to be an uphill fight. Ships are designed to keep water on the outside of the hull, so sprinklers struck a particular uneasiness for some because they were not familiar with modern systems. They envisioned unnecessary water damage to a large, luxurious cruise ship. However, there was some support from within the cruise ship industry. A few forward-thinking companies had recognized the risk of fires and had installed sprinklers. They acknowledged having had fires, but the fires remained very small due to the installed sprinkler system. The fires had not resulted in the need for a major response, but rather they could be dealt with by ‘cleaning them up with a mop’. More were now willing to accept requiring both smoke detectors and sprinklers on new ships, but not retroactively imposing them on existing ones.

The greatest opposition, of course, was the added cost of retrofitting these systems. The cruise ship owners were opposed to this retroactive application, especially since it would substantially increase cost. As final negotiations were taking place, it became evident that a way had to be found to bring all, even those originally opposed, into agreement. Fire protection professionals were tapped to provide real-world costs for retrofitting sprinkler systems on board a large passenger ship. The costs were compared to those of shipyard costs for interior refurbishment. The costs for the sprinkler systems were comparable to those for installing new carpet. These figures were presented to representatives of the cruise ship industry and they confirmed them. It took this final confirmation and official submittals to the other administrations to gain the necessary support for passage of the retroactive amendments.

In December 1992, IMO adopted the amendments applicable to both new and existing ships.2 These modern systems continue to provide fire safety aboard passenger ships for those who choose to see the world by sea as well as those who operate and serve them – professional mariners and crews. It took a combination of technical expertise and cooperation on the part of a large number of individuals and organizations to achieve a result that increased the level of safety while preserving the intact structure and reducing long-term costs.

Marjorie Murtagh Cooke is with Robson Forensic, Inc.


  1. Schei, T. (ed.) "The Scandinavian Star Disaster of 7 April 1990: Report of the Committee Appointed by Royal Decrees of 20 April and 4 May 1990.” Norwegian Official Reports, Oslo, Norway 1991
  2. International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974:1992 Amendments, International Maritime Organization, London, 1992.