Cruise Ship Fires and Facilitation

Jen Dodson

by Jennifer Dodson

Chief Creative Officer

If you’ve read our about page, you know that I’m skilled at getting myself into unique situations. My vacation history reads like a police blotter: lost luggage, TSA battles, customs delays, broken down rental cars, double homicides, injuries, etc. I have scratched my back with a banana and bruised a rib posing for a picture.

When my husband first met me, he thought I was a pathological liar because there was no way one person could have so many stories. Then we started hanging out and he experienced the unpredictable nature of my life.

The ironic part is that I’m also a planner. I love having things organized and will gladly create a color-coded spreadsheet to illustrate the plan.

When you travel with me, you can be sure that I’ll have things planned out. I create spreadsheets to compare different travel options. I search for deals and regularly adjust for the best option. I prepare custom packing lists with notes on weather and activities that includes priority items and nice-to-haves. Leading up to the trip, I send educational content about the destination. I’d go on, but I don’t want to give away all my travel secrets.

No matter how well you plan, life is going to happen. I did all the planning for a cruise with friends in 2013. The first two days were flawless, then at 3:30 in the morning the fire alarm went off. Our cruise ship was on fire. Not a small kitchen fire, I could see the water glowing from the flames off the back of the boat. Other ships were rerouting to pick us up when we seemingly had to abandon ship. Needless to say, I have a new appreciation for muster drills.

Thankfully, we weren’t evacuated. In about two hours, they got the fire under control (what were the first two hours?!). By 7:30am most guests were allowed back to their staterooms and we were on route to Freeport. This wasn’t a stop on our cruise, I didn’t have my guidebooks of activities or anything planned. The port wasn’t prepared for us either; the bars ran out of beer! We were flown home the next day.

Nothing about this week went as planned and I would do it again. Sure the fire sucked, but we got another cruise trip for free because Royal Caribbean understands customer service. I also have a great story and CNN interview.

This is my life. Plans are made, refined, and optimized as much as possible. Then when the time comes all you can do is go with the flow. The same is true for facilitation. Here are five lessons you can learn from my cruise ship fire to help you with facilitating.

  1. Know your planning won’t be perfect. There are too many factors you can’t control. That’s why insurance policies and contracts include “acts of God” clauses. Facilitation isn’t like acting, where you can rehearse a script and stage directions. It’s improvisation on a corporate stage.
  2. Prepare for what you can. While “proper planning prevents piss poor performance,” too much planning prevents progress. Your plan should be a guiderail that gives you room to adjust on the fly. Plan time for discussions to run long or to deal with technical difficulties. No one in the room will object to ending early if the day was productive.
  3. Work from what you know. While I didn’t know the new port well, I knew where to look for advice based on my previous research. Because of polls from the group, I knew what types of activities we wanted to do. I could fill in the holes as we went.
  4. Be open to perspectives. During the fire, I overheard a conversation between a fire fighter and former Naval officer. I introduced myself and got a different perspective of what was going on than I could have known myself. Facilitating requires the people in the room to participate and share their perspectives. Neither person alone could fully appreciate the situation. Together, they helped everyone in ear-shot appreciate the situation.
  5. Pay attention to your surroundings. The crew member in front of us was in his pajamas with an emergency vest and hard hat. He had a huge smile on his face. We knew as long as he was smiling, we were OK. This is exactly how facilitating goes. You identify a few key people and read their body language. If they are checking their phones, something is wrong and you need to adjust. If they are nodding along, you’re on the right track.

Needless to say, your facilitation may not go as smoothly as planned, but it’s important to find the positive in every negative situation. Positivity will usually come from the lessons learned from a negative experience, even if that experience was completely out of your control.