NEW ORLEANS—“Somali pirate, coming to get you. Somali pirate, coming to get you.”

That was the eerie message coming through the VHF radio on the Maresk Alabama on the night before four Somali pirates attacked and boarded the commercial ship in the Northwest Indian Ocean in 2009.

That next morning, Capt. Richard Phillips found himself delivering his own ominous message over his handheld UHF radio: “Shots fired. Shots fired.”

It soon got worse. His next message to his crew: “Pirates aboard. Pirates aboard.”

Phillips shared this compelling account of his experience to attendees at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference on Tuesday. His story was made into a movie—starring Tom Hanks as Phillips—in 2013.

Phillips noted that he acquired an ignoble distinction that day, when he became the first captain since the 1800s to have his U.S. ship come under attack, boarded by pirates and taken hostage.

But his quick thinking and determination enabled him to reclaim control of the ship when he convinced the pirates to leave the ship on the lifeboat, knowing that they would not be able to board the vessel again. It was an unorthodox approach—having the captain leave the ship—but he said he saw it as the only way to protect the ship and the crew.

“One of the things all of us must do is question our training and our judgments to ascertain what is the correct course of action in a contemporary situation,” Phillips said. “We can’t solve all new problems with old solutions. Just like you have to stay ahead of your situations and security, we on the ships must stay ahead of the levels of threats the pirates are displaying.

“And I bet, at times, you wish it was only four pirates after you.”

Even after multiple days on the hot lifeboat with taunting pirates and little food or water, Phillips said he never perceived himself as a victim or hostage, because he continued to fight for his life. He encouraged attendees to approach their work with the same fearless leadership.

“We have something in common, you and I,” Phillips said. “We both face challenge and change, whether it’s on the seas I encounter as the captain of the ship or the changing seas of security and business. We’re all riding on ever-shifting waves. And let me tell you from experience—you’re better off facing that with a well-trained, committed crew than all by yourself alone.

“These aren’t easy times. They’re tough, they’re challenging and they’re changing. Yet, I have faith in you. See, I know from experience that you are stronger than you even know, and if you commit yourself to see it through, to not surrender in the face of adversary, to join your colleagues as a dedicated team, you too can overcome almost any problem you face.”