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Susan Hoffman

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By Susan Hoffman
Edge Contributor

It’s been 110 years since the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14 and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912. Since then, this disaster has been extensively analyzed in many books and articles. Most of the public is acquainted with the general facts of the sinking: the collision happened despite measures by the crew to avoid hitting the iceberg head-on, there weren’t enough boats for everyone on board, and the boats used for evacuation were not filled to their full capacity.

After the disaster, both the U.S. Senate and the British government held investigations to determine what had happened and why there were so many deaths of the passengers and crew. A lack of proper training for some members of the crew was one of the factors in the loss of many lives.

The final report from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry concluded that “Each member of the crew had a boat assigned to him in printed lists which were posted up in convenient places for the men to see, but it appeared that in some cases the men had not looked at these lists and did not know their respective boats. There had been no proper boat drill nor a muster…and the stewards and firemen were unaccustomed to work the collapsible boats.”

The U.S. Senate’s final report observed that “No general alarm was sounded, no whistle blown, and no systematic warning was given to the passengers.” In addition, the Senate report notes a lack of preparation and confusion during the evacuation: “There was no system adopted for loading the boats; there was great indecision as to the deck from which boats were to be loaded; there was a wide diversity of opinion as to the number of the crew necessary to man each boat; there was no direction whatever as to the number of passengers to be carried by each boat, and no uniformity in loading them.”

For those interested in Titanic, the University’s library has a fascinating book by British accident inspector John Lang, “Titanic: A Fresh Look at the Evidence by a Former Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents.” In this book, Lang analyzes the Titanic from his dispassionate and expert perspective as a modern maritime accident investigator.

One of his most striking conclusions in the book is that the accuracy of eyewitness testimony from Titanic survivors was understandably affected by the trauma they experienced and that examining disasters like Titanic needs to involve comparing eyewitness testimony against the physical evidence. Lang also notes that for many onboard the Titanic, “information was passed by word of mouth” and “no concerted attempt was made to ‘shake’ (waken) all the off-watch deck officers once the extent of the danger had become evident.”

Titanic Still Provides Modern-Day Lessons in Disaster Reaction and Training

The Titanic still has several lessons to teach us about how to properly react to and train for a disaster. But what is the proper way to cope with a large disaster that is going to lead to fatalities? Also, what do you do when the nearest aid is several hours away?

To answer these types of questions, I interviewed Allison G.S. Knox, an emergency and disaster management professional and one of Edge’s regular contributors.

Edge: Some major disasters come very suddenly and unexpectedly. For instance, your first alert that something is wrong might be hearing gunshots during a school shooting or seeing the smoke and flames of a forest fire coming toward you. But for other disasters like the Titanic sinking, tornadoes or hurricanes, you have advance warning that something big is going on. What is the ideal way to react in a time-sensitive situation if you’re an emergency management professional?

Allison G. S. Knox: It really depends on what you’re dealing with and what the circumstances are. We do have policies and concepts like the “All Hazards Approach” that help first responders handle all emergencies with the same general approach.

Edge: Both the American and British inquiries after the disaster mentioned a lack of proper training for the Titanic’s crew concerning the handling of the boats designed for evacuating the Titanic. Why is it so important to train in advance for disasters?

Allison G. S. Knox: Training is one of the most important pieces of emergency management in all levels of analysis. When we train, we are working through our emergency management plans and figuring out the pieces that don’t work during a disaster. 

We’re also framing how to handle situations in our minds. Without training, first responders are put at a real disadvantage. Just because plans are written down does not mean an event will be managed in that way – things can go sideways quickly. It is one of the reasons why training is so important.

Edge: In a disaster like the Titanic that occurred far away from land, help from other sources was not available until Capt. Roston of the Carpathia got to the site of the sinking several hours later. For disaster events that occur in remote locations, well away from immediate assistance, what would you recommend?

Allison G. S. Knox: Most emergency professionals are trained to work with what they have.  Those that were involved in the Titanic did the best with what they had at the time.

We’ve learned a lot more about emergency management since then. In the United States, we have instituted policies and developed concepts to help manage disasters on ships because of this incident. Other countries, however, do not have similar policies and have had similar maritime incidents.

Edge: During a disaster event, it’s easy for adrenaline to take over and that adrenaline spike can cloud someone’s judgment. It can even make the difference between a life-or-death choice. What is the best way to control this adrenaline surge during an emergency?

Allison G. S. Knox: Adrenaline surges during emergencies are normal, particularly when it is a type of incident that an individual has not encountered before. Good training helps to calm nerves so a first responder can focus on getting through the incident.

Edge: In their final reports, both the U.S. Senate investigation and the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry cited a lack of organization in how the evacuation from the ship was handled. What are some of the most important considerations when you’re designing an organized plan to handle a disaster event that is likely to involve a considerable number of injuries and deaths? 

Allison G. S. Knox: Emergency management is a relatively new academic field, and scholars have been studying the sociology of disasters for decades. At the time of the sinking of the Titanic, we did not know as much about emergency management as we do today. 

Several studies have researched the mechanics of disasters. We understand from these studies that there is often an administrative component to disasters. E.L. Quarantelli, a sociologist, often wrote that “all disasters are man-made.”

What this means is that there is an administrative failure associated with disasters. So the plans that we make and the training that we do are all parts of the components of managing disasters effectively.

The Titanic Disaster Led to Improved Safety for Modern-Day Ship Crews and Passengers

Although the Titanic disaster resulted in great loss of life, it did eventually make sea voyages much safer for future passengers and crew members. As Lang noted in his book, “For all its awfulness, Titanic did achieve something. It was the catalyst for bringing the maritime nations of the world together to agree [to] the first Safety of Life at Sea convention [SOLAS] in 1914.

“Since then, SOLAS in various guises has set the standard for safety at sea today. Whether you embark in a ship as a member of the crew or as a passenger, you owe it to the many over the past 100 years who have worked hard to draw up and enforce regulations that have their origins in a tragedy played out on the ice-cold waters of the North Atlantic when a brand-new four-funneled liner called Titanic hit an iceberg and sank.”