But these advances in aviation haven’t made it aboard ships. “The maritime industry in the ’90s took CRM, the basics, and they created BRM,” Konrad said. “They kind of dumbed it down a little bit. They have not updated it since the ’90s.”
Read: The pathos of El Faro’s final hours
In 2015, the cargo ship El Faro sank in the Atlantic Ocean after sailing into Hurricane Joaquin, killing all 33 people aboard. A voice recorder on the bridge, later recovered, captured members of the crew questioning the captain’s decisions and his cavalier attitude toward the storm.
“Think he’s just trying to play it down, because he realizes we shouldn’t have come this way,” the second mate said. “Nobody in their right mind would be driving into it,” a sailor told her later. “We are,” she replied “Yaaay!” The captain, meanwhile, complained about having his own authority crimped by micromanagement on shore.
The NTSB’s report on El Faro blamed the captain’s decision to sail into the storm for the sinking, but added, “Contributing to the sinking was ineffective bridge resource management on board El Faro, which included the captain’s failure to adequately consider officers’ suggestions.” The board faulted junior officers for not speaking up, while acknowledging, “In the marine industry, the gap between the captain and his less-powerful subordinates, known as the power distance, can make it difficult for junior officers to challenge a captain.” The report noted that the captain had not completed training in BRM and that the Coast Guard doesn’t require BRM refreshers.
There are other BRM challenges beyond outdated hierarchies. While aviation uses English as a lingua franca, sailors come from around the world and don’t always speak the same, or even a common, language. Many ships are also old and aren’t fitted with the most recent technology, adding friction points that matter in a delicate situation like that in the Suez. If an airplane has a mechanical problem, the pilot will receive an immediate notification. But a captain may have to call the engine room from the bridge to figure out what is happening.
Photos: The final voyage of Costa Concordia
Konrad has worked on developing more up-to-date and rigorous BRM guidelines, but he told me that he’s struggled to get any traction.
“For good reasons, the maritime industry is resistant to change,” he said. “When things change too quickly, people die.” But caution can shade into sclerosis, preventing needed updates. Shipping companies are also unwilling to make major investments if their competitors aren’t, for fear of losing margins in a competitive market.
Konrad said the responsibility for pushing better standards must fall on the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, and the U.S. government. But the U.S. Maritime Administration gets little attention. American mariners bridled at what they saw as indifference by the Obama administration and its slowness to fill the role of maritime administrator—the agency has often gone without an appointed head for long stretches, a level of neglect seldom accorded the Federal Aviation Administration.
The success of the aviation industry in improving standards and reducing accidents suggests it would be straightforward (if not easy) and valuable to do the same in shipping. “We know how to do this,” Konrad said. But without improved bridge resource management, the maritime industry will remain just as stuck as the Ever Given—and probably for much longer.