How Prepared Are Cruise Ships If You Go Overboard?

"Man overboard" systems on cruise ships may be ill-equipped.

ByABC News
January 16, 2014, 1:00 PM

Jan. 16, 2014— -- Over a year ago, Sarah Kirby was celebrating her 30th birthday on a cruise from Miami to Jamaica when she fell overboard.

“I remember looking over the water, looking at the ship,” Kirby told ABC News’ “20/20.” “The next thing I knew I was falling, and I panicked.”

“Everybody was drinking to excess, and I was enjoying it with everybody else on the cruise,” Kirby said of that fateful night. “The next thing I remember is going out onto the balcony.”

From there, Kirby fell seven decks towards the sea. She plummeted about two stories, slamming into a lifeboat, and then dropped another five stories into the water.

“I was so scared.” Kirby recalled. “I was going to do everything in my power to survive.”

Nearly 18 million people took cruises last year but few people fall overboard, Larry Kaye, a cruise industry lawyer, pointed out.

“It's actually one of the rarest events that happens on cruise ships [with] a rate of one overboard for every 1,650,000 passengers,” Kaye told “20/20.”

Yet, in the past three weeks, people have gone overboard on no fewer than five different ships.

“You don't get blown or swept off a cruise ship. It does not happen,” Kaye said. “All of these incidents, unfortunately, are some reckless or deliberate act.”

Regardless of how it happened, searching for people who've fallen from a ship is a difficult task, and the longer it takes to start a rescue, the less of a chance of it being successful.

While cameras recorded Kirby when she fell overboard, her lawyer claims no one saw the footage for some time. “What’s the point of having a camera there if there’s no one there watching it?” Michael Winkleman told "20/20."

“They may have a closed circuit camera on the deck,” maritime lawyer James Walker told “20/20.” “But it’s not monitored, and it’s not connected to an alarm.”

Though Congress called for a “man overboard” system in 2010, the cruise lines claim that the Coast Guard is still working on final specifications for systems that would be mandated in that congressional act and that the cameras they are now using exceed what's been called for.

“The way the systems are now, there’s no detection system.” Walker said. “The ships will continue to sail for two, three hours.”

Dave Leone, of the company Radio Zeeland in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently showed “20/20” their man overboard system that he said is in shape to be used on cruise ships. The system is equipped with a laser sensor, a system that can note where someone went overboard, and a camera that can record video of the person going overboard.

But cruise ships haven’t used Leone’s system yet. “The response has always been: it’s not required. It’s not mandated yet,” Leone said. “Therefore they don’t want to spend the money at this point.”

Carnival Cruise Lines, the industry’s largest cruise line, told “20/20” that extensive “testing at sea has yet to reveal any system that meets its standards.” This includes issues of weather, shifting seas, false positives and negatives based on birds, waves, debris and other problems.

“The vendors of these systems are very anxious to bring them to market,” Kaye said. “These detection systems are not perfected yet."

Even without a man overboard system, the ship that Sarah Kirby fell from returned to rescue her.

“The relief of seeing something in the ocean other than me...was unbelievable,” Kirby said.

Kirby is now suing the cruise line. “They over-served her alcohol, and when she went overboard, they had awful policies and procedures in place,” Winkleman said.

In a statement to “20/20” about Kirby’s case, Carnival Cruise Lines said that the claims in the suit “are completely unsupported and contradicted by the evidence in the case.”

“I call it 'sail and sue.' We deal with it all the time,” Kaye said. “I think cruise ships are probably the safest vacation option available to most people.

“For me the only safer vacation option would be in my backyard.”