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In February of 2012, a detachment of Italian marines providing anti-piracy protection aboard the Italian-flag oil tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire on a fishing boat off the coast of India, killing two fishermen aboard.

The incident occurred in international waters, and so the Lexie didn’t report it to the Indian authorities. However, after being contacted by the Indian coast guard, the tanker voluntarily anchored in Kochi, where the it was subsequently impounded and the marines arrested. They currently await trial for murder, and the incident has strained diplomatic relations between India and Italy. (In early 2013, promising that the marines would return, the Italian government negotiated for them a temporary visit to Italy to vote in the general election. Once in Italy, the Italian government reneged on promises made to India and refused to return the marines. In March, backtracking on their refusal, they returned the marines to India to stand trial.)

The fishing boat was unarmed, and the action raised a number of questions about the procedures followed when the Lexie confronted the fisherman, whom they suspected to be pirates. It is unclear if the Lexie fired warning shots, signaled the fishing boat, or attempted to evade the presumed pirates before opening fire.

In high-adrenaline environments stress-induced tunnel vision and human being’s propensity for confirmation bias, the tendency for people to discard evidence that disagrees with their initial assumptions, make stepping back and assessing a situation difficult. In this case, a lack of visible weapons did not dissuade the marines from their suspicion that the fishing boat was a pirate vessel. Training and procedures, like standard rules-of-engagement, reduce such biases and allow decision makers to effectively assess such fast-moving situations.

Maritime protection should adopt standard procedures and take lessons from aviation and fire fighting, two groups who use repeated training and high-fidelity simulations to balance standardization with the necessity of improvisation in dynamic situations.

Subsequent to this incident, captains and ship owners are now more likely to be concerned about incarceration of their crew, seizure of their ships, and liability for their actions after an incident. As a result, they are likely to avoid voluntary reporting regimes, a stance that will harm safety and reduce collective learning. The Ship Security Reporting System (SSRS) is a tool used to facilitates real-time responses to piracy incidents. To preserve the effectiveness of such a system, the information reported should be anonymized except in furtherance of immediate protection. This would be similar to how NASA collects near-miss and incident data in their Aviation Safety Reporting System: reports are anonymized and the information cannot be used to bring actions against those filing a report. This will ensure that SSRS remains an effective tool to report both ongoing incidents of piracy and near-misses.

The Indian police officer who investigated the shooting incident is quoted as saying that he believed the marines “acted in good faith, but without proper care and caution.” The action of the marines was not malicious or ill intentioned. However, in such high-stakes situations, care and caution can be encouraged through training, simulation, and standardized procedures. A little forethought may save lives and avoid costly future incidents.