Safety drills

Drills help you and your crew respond rapidly and effectively in an emergency situation.

Why do I need to do safety drills?

You need to do drills so you can react quickly and without thinking in an emergency situation.

They also allow you to identify any deficiencies in your reaction plan.
Finally, the law requires you to do drills.

The following things must be covered:

  • Fire
  • Engine room fire
  • Person overboard
  • Severe weather
  • Serious injury
  • Assembly points
  • Collision/ grounding/ flooding
  • Prepare to abandon/ abandon ship
  • Terrorism
  • Bomb threat.

You might think of other things that relate to your vessel as part of your hazard identification/ risk assessment process.

Your Safety Management System details how you carry out emergency safety drills on your vessel. You need to do them at least every two months.

What are the benefits?

  • Drills help you and your crew respond rapidly and effectively in an emergency situation
  • Drills can help you and your crew prepare to make decisions under pressure
  • Drills can help you identify how your procedures might be improved
  • Drills help new crew to become familiar with the vessel, her equipment and her procedures
  • Drills help regular crew to “keep up to speed” with the vessel, her equipment and her procedures
  • Drills help develop teamwork
  • Drills help develop self-confidence
  • Drills help the crew to build confidence in each other which means you can be more confident in them
  • Drills help crews develop confidence in you and your ability to deal with an emergency.
  • Drills give you the opportunity to check that your safety gear is working and fix it if necessary
  • Drill records show that you are thinking about safety.

Do I need to keep records?

  • You must keep records of all drills held on your vessel. Why? To help program training, to help identify areas that might need further practice, and to help identify maintenance issues, particularly with safety equipment
  • You need to say when drills were held, who took part; what drills you did and where you did them
  • You need to say where drill records are kept, for example, in your vessel’s log or on a drill report form
  • You need to keep records for five years minimum
  • Keeping drill records is a legal requirement.

Who runs the drills?

While the Master is responsible for the vessel, he or she can name any crew member to run drills. This gives crew members a chance to gain a better understanding of what others on the vessel have to do, particularly in an emergency.

If you ask a crew member to run a drill it will build their confidence and help them understand what other crew members have to do in an emergency.

The person running the drill will discuss with the crew what’s going to happen (a briefing) and after the drill, discuss what happened (a debriefing).

What’s a ‘briefing’?

  • This is a meeting with all the crew before a drill
  • It’s very important, so make sure everyone is there
  • Everyone needs to understand why the drill is happening
  • You need to explain what the drill is about and what the scenario might be (or keep it as a complete surprise)
  • Everyone needs to understand their role and its importance
  • Everyone needs to understand that it’s important to react quickly in an emergency
  • Everyone needs to understand that there is no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ in a drill but simply a chance to improve
  • Everyone needs to understand the importance of using effective closed loop communication during drills – repeating back what they think they’ve heard to make sure it’s correct and that everyone’s on the same page
  • Make sure that no one is put in danger during a drill and that everyone’s got Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and that they know how to use it if needed
  • Make sure they know how to use it correctly
  • Make sure there is a way to stop the drill if a crew member is feeling uncomfortable. For example, by using a simple code word.

What’s a ‘debriefing’?

  • This is a meeting with all the crew after a drill
  • It’s very important, so make sure everyone is there
  • Make sure everyone is okay
  • This is when you discuss what went well during the drill and why
  • This is when you discuss what could have been done better and why
  • This is a good time to look at records of the last drill to see if you’re doing things better
  • This is when you get reports on equipment, how it’s running, that it’s back in the right place and that work requests are completed if required
  • Make sure everyone gets chance to speak and that their opinion is valued and respected
  • Make sure everyone understands that it’s better to make a mistake in a drill than in a real emergency
  • Make sure the records are kept and made while things are still fresh in your mind.

Are all drills the same?

No, there are different types of drills.

'What if?' drills

'What if' drills can be a chat with your crew about what they would do in a certain situation. For example, you might ask your deckhand what they would do if a passenger fell in the water. Or you might ask hospitality crew what they would do if they had to prepare passengers to abandon ship.

'What if' drills are useful if you're pushed for time. For example, if you're going to pick up a charter and only have a short time between your berth and the pick up point. Or you might have a deckhand keeping lookout in the wheelhouse. You could ask what they would do if you suddenly fell ill and discuss what they say.

'What if' drills can be done if the vessel is at her mooring or tied up alongside.

'What if' drills are an easy way of keeping everyone thinking about safety.

'What if' drills should be recorded.

'What if' drills are not a replacement for scenario-based drills.

Scenario drills take a more 'real' approach. Crew members are doing what they normally do in their usual position on the vessel. If you do drills on your vessel when she has no passengers on board, try to get the crew to imagine that you have, say 75 per cent, of your normal numbers. This can be a challenge for the person running the drill but does get crew members thinking about what could happen if the vessel is full of panicking passengers.

If you normally have loud music playing through the vessel, make sure it's playing when the scenario starts. Loud music is a challenge to effective communication. You might want to say that it's night time, it's just started to rain and several of your passengers might have had a lot to drink.

You or another crew member starts a scenario. For example, smoke is filling the main cabin. You pretend to be a panicking passenger raising the alarm. The crew must react as if it is a real emergency.

If there is equipment that would normally be used in the situation, use it. If the fire pump is required, bring it on line. This gives your crew the chance to operate safety equipment, experience how it feels and develop confidence. It also means that your safety equipment is getting a work out.

The person running the drill could now say that an intoxicated passenger has panicked and jumped over the side.

The emergency situation of the fire has now turned into a crisis because the crew now has to manage the fire, the intoxicated person in the water on a dark night, in the rain. The Master is at the helm, totally reliant on the crew for information. Teamwork and effective communication are essential.

Scenario based drills are more involved than just running equipment. It may take some time to get used to them but they are a very effective way to become prepared for an emergency.

Remember that no two emergency situations will ever be the same! Use your imagination and get the crew thinking!

It'll never happen on my vessel!

"Mate, I've been doing this for 30 years. It's all common sense."

Unfortunately common sense does not equal common understanding and even the best prepared vessels and crews can run into trouble.

Being prepared by doing drills reduces the risk of poor performance in an emergency situation.

A few things to remember when you do drills

  • Not everyone in the crew will have the same experience or skills.
  • Not all crew members will be as confident as the next.
  • Don’t assume that everyone understands – check!
  • Identify who is good at what and use their strengths.
  • Use the experiences of crew members in discussions. For example, someone may have been involved in an actual person overboard situation. Ask them what happened.
  • Crew members should not be afraid to make comment or ask questions.
  • Drills need a leader and the active participation of the crew.
  • Drills should be a positive experience. While they are a serious exercise they can still be fun.

How do I do drills if there’s only me operating the vessel?

This is where what if’ drills can be really useful and talking to yourself is okay!

Think about what you would do in different emergencies.

For example, you operate a fishing charter vessel that works 30 nautical miles off the coast. A seasick fisherman has gone below, lit a cigarette, dozed off and set fire to the bedding. Or a fisherman has a large hook in his palm. Or you’ve collapsed and you’re unconscious. Or a freak wave has washed a passenger over the side. Or you’ve hit a shipping container and you’re making water. Use your equipment. Don’t assume it is working or that you will remember how to operate it quickly.

Your passenger briefing will be important here. Perhaps have basic radio operating instructions on a laminated sheet next to the radio. Explain to passengers that if anything happens to you, they need to call for assistance and that radio instructions are in the wheelhouse. Let a passenger request a radio check following your instructions. Your briefing becomes a drill.

You might want to have ‘dummy runs’ of scenarios with a friend. Get them to throw something over the side and alert you. Get them to alert you to, for example, a fire or a sick passenger or a broken fuel line. Put yourself through the paces and then debrief with your friend. Think about what you did and ask if you’d do the same next time or if you could do it better.

On every trip, ask yourself a what if’ question to keep yourself focused on safety.

Don’t forget that ‘what if’ drills should be recorded.


Think about where you operate and what you do. Are you a large charter vessel that can carry several hundred people? Are you a one man band who might sometimes carry a deck hand?

Think about what could happen to you and the vessel. For example, you might think ‘Person Overboard’ is a real risk on your vessel and you want crew to be able to react quickly to this emergency. Develop scenarios and use them in your drills.

Do you carry hospitality/wait staff? What would you expect them to do in an emergency?

Be creative and ask the crew for ideas.

To get you started, here are a few examples:

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