The Discipline of Survival

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The Discipline of Survival

STCW emergency procedure guidelines are insistent that to maintain discipline in a marine emergency is absolutely essential to give survivors the best prospect of being rescued.   But what is discipline – really? And how do we achieve it especially when we find ourselves in a life and death situation?

Suddenly thrust into a marine emergency as the commander of a survival craft we may have seasoned crew Castaways- Suppliesmembers in our charge but we also might have inexperienced frightened passengers. Whether seasoned crew or frightened passengers, in an emergency we are now all on the same team, a team that has a common goal – to be rescued. STCW guidelines tell us that to achieve our goal our team must be disciplined.

The Webster dictionary describes discipline in its natural sense as a systematic instruction intended to train a person, sometimes literally called a disciple, in a craft, trade or other activity, or to follow a particular code of conduct or order. Often, however the phrase “to discipline” carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order–that is, ensuring instructions are carried out–is often regulated through punishment.

So, how much should your team be disciplined? As the leader, are you wholly responsible? Clearly, whatever emergency procedures are designated on the muster list should be followed, but what if a person in your group (team) is posing a problem? Should you be the one, as team leader, to correct the problem? perhaps not.

Balancing between disciplining your team and building the team for the purpose of rescue can sometimes be difficult and is often viewed as two opposite behaviors. However, by building a stronger team from your group of survivors, you can also develop a team that essentially self-disciplines. By building in mutual accountability into your team of survivors, the team will become self-disciplining.  To this end, focus should be on gaining common goals, purpose, and process.

Developing ground rules and assigning tasks needs to begin right after the abandon ship alarm once your group has mustered on the ship and then continued in the survival craft. Ensuring each rule is followed can be key. Dealing with discipline during shipboard emergencies includes:

  • identify and make use of strengths amongst your team
  • recognize and allow for weakness
  • create and take advantage of opportunities, be inventive and creative
  • detect and minimize threats

In reality, though, teams may not easily become self-disciplining. How do you, as the survival team leader, then discipline a team in a very difficult challenging survival situation? If someone on your team is not pulling their weight, it is highly possible they are blissfully unaware of the problem. Passenger’s initial response in shipboard emergencies is:

  • Most (up to 60%) will do little or engage in inappropriate behaviors. They will wait for the initiative of others.
  • 25% may act rationally, perhaps attacking the threat, closing doors or warning others
  • 15% may be totally paralyzed by the seriousness of the situation

Find an appropriate way to talk to them about it, (especially if it’s a concern with more than one member). Perhaps there is another issue that needs to be addressed that you are unaware of. One of the worse things you could do as team leader, as tempting as it might be, is to ignore the problem – it will not go away or get better unless you can address it. Remember, too, that you may need to ultimately remove someone from your team, if there is no resolution, no solution, and the team and the team goal (to survive) are suffering.


Aids to Discipline Decision Making include:

  • How others behave: Look at other passengers and crew for clues. If others do not appear to take an alarm seriously, neither will they.
  • What others say: People will process information in small groups, especially peer and family groups.
  • Presence of specialized staff: Senior officers or fire parties will help shape passengers’ view of emergency.
  • Changes in the environment: Engines slowing, listing, heat, noise, smoke. Smoke alone has been proved to be an ambiguous cue.
  • Instructions by staff: Actual presence of staff issuing guidance prompts most people to take warning seriously.

One of the seven steps to survival is play. Finding this important balance between play and discipline is largely dependent on the goal of the team, and the situation and relationships of the team and you. It’s largely a personal choice – but a great team cannot exist without both. Ask for help from the survivors in your charge and share the responsibility of discipline. Keep track of expectations and progress and share the information with the whole team. Build the team to trust each other and perform for each other. Leading a team to be self-disciplining in a survival situation is difficult, but when accomplished the results are more than likely to lead to rescue.

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