News that seafarers have been killed inside a ship’s ‘safe room’ or ‘citadel’ as Somali pirates tried to shoot their way in has highlighted the sad fact that mandating safe areas on a ship does not mean that they’ll be used wisely. While full details of the incident have not been released, and probably never will be, the fact is that having a safe room on a vessel without understanding the role it actually plays in ship defence is as pointless, and possibly as dangerous, as putting lifeboats on a ship but not telling or training and drilling the crew to use them properly.
The principles of defence are as old as warfare, from the castles of medieval Europe and earthworks of Saxon Britain to the coastal churches of the pirate-infested Philippine islands in Spanish times and the Moro kotas of Mindanao in the early 20th century so familiar to “Black Jack” Pershing and occupying American forces. The system that so often made it difficult to capture a citadel then is just as valid today.
Michael Murrell of ISSG Holdings, which provides ship security personal, anti-piracy training and security assessments, warns: “I think that the citadel system is very misunderstood they think it just involves the safe room. They think they can create a safe room, see pirates and lock themselves in and that is it but the safe room is one small part of the citadel concept.
“The true citadel system is supposed to start about 1500 meters out, with multiple layers of defence, and the safe room is to be a last resort.”
Just as the defence of a medieval castle began with a cleared space outside the main defences that enabled a threat assessment of potential aggressors and enough tie to mount a defence a ‘safe room’ is at the centre of a 1,500 metre circle of defences, the outer limit of which allows assessment of a potential or actual threat and preparations made to meet it.
Says Murrell “(That’s) Where you identify potential threat or positive threat, then communications, speed, manoeuvring and such come into play. As the pirates approach, the other defensive measures come into play as the circles get smaller, until there is an alongside situation which the onside defences come into play then there is a fallback position to have certain on board defences in place and the safe room is a last resort.”
A citadel is a system of defences providing deterrence or denial, the safe room, appropriately fortified, at its centre as the final redoubt. Depending on the layout of the ship and its manning there may be a need for two or three safe rooms, “a proper vessel security survey should be conducted as there may be the need to have more than one safe room”says Murrell .
A safe room, as the crew of Maersk Alabama realised, has to be properly stocked with food, water, basic communications, ventilation, toilet and a first aid kit. Even that is not enough: A Safe Room can become a dangerous place rather than a place of refuge when it’s only there to comply with mandatory requirements.
Says Murrell: “The shipping culture is based on compliance, not on security so when the IMO or IMB says have a safe room, that is all they do. The IMB is actually lacking on the safe room-citadel concept and has not provided the correct instructions”.
“If you just use the locked door of a compartment for your plan, it is the sailor’s equivalent of hiding under your bed from the monster in the closet, “warns Murrel, “If the vessel has been prepared properly, with a proper defensive plan and defensive posture in place, the bad guys will have a difficult time locating the safe room, let alone getting to it.”
If the Safe Room is obvious and easy to find, you might as well put a sign on it saying “Get your hostages here”.
Protecting the safe room and deterring pirates requires more than just locking the door and staying inside. Watertight doors in passages should be closed. Maersk Alabama extinguished lights so the pirates could not see where they were going. The vessel’s internal sirens and alarms can be used to make life even more miserable for the pirates, as can broken glass and other types of unpleasant obstacles.
The objective at that point is to delay the pirates gaining full control and make enough time for naval force to react and intervene.
But that will only happen if the ship has an effective security plan and implements it. Unless that happens a Safe Room is just a place to imprison hostages.
The last word from Michael Murrell: “The main issue is that it needs to be planned properly with someone that knows how to plan it, not just think you need to lock yourself in a room and that is your whole plan”.