Container Ship Fires – the List Keeps Growing

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

13 June 2018


Every year at least one new incident of a fire starting in the cargo of a container ship makes headline news. ShipInsight looks at the problem and what solutions are on offer.

In March this year another container ship fire on the almost new Maersk Honam attracted headlines and media attention around the globe. Five crew died as a result of that fire and the crew were forced to abandon ship. Almost seven weeks later the vessel had been towed to Jebel Ali with the fire still smouldering in the holds and it was expected that it would take till the end of May for the vessel to be safe enough for discharging of cargo to begin.

Although it only made the pages of the marine press, another fire less than two weeks after the first started on Maersk Honam was reported on another Maersk boxship the Maersk Kensington. On this occasion the fire was contained using all the vessels CO2 systems and no deaths were reported.

Maersk Fire

Two fires in less than two weeks might seem to be an unfortunate coincidence but they are just the latest in a growing list that stretches back almost to the beginning of the container revolution. There have been at least a dozen major incidents in the last five years alone including MSC Daniela and APL Austria in 2017, CMA CGM Rossini in 2016, Hanjin Green Earth in 2015,and Hansa Brandenburg, Eugen Maersk, and Lilac in 2013.

The named vessels are those that made headlines but there are almost certainly many more where swift action by the crew contains the fire and details do not become public knowledge. In the vast majority of cases, the official investigation finds that the likely cause of the fire was mis-declared hazardous cargo loaded in the cargo holds rather than being in a safer position on the open deck. Although not necessarily being the cause of a major fire, statistics suggest that mis-declaration of cargo is a major factor in 27% of cases.

In its in-house publication Container Ship Update of 2016, DNV GL cited statistics from the Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS) a shipping line initiative launched in September 2011 to increase safety by sharing information and advice on cargo related problems. Although access to the statistics is limited to members, it is reported that the 14 members of CINS reported 29 on board fires or explosions in 2012. Extrapolating those figures to the wider container fleet it might be assumed that the number of fires in 2012 would have been around 60. In the same year, only seven cargo-related fires on container ships were publicly reported, highlighting that the problem is much greater than high profile incidents would suggest.

Mis-declared cargo is the biggest hazard

The question of mis-declared cargoes on container ships has been a perennial problem made worse by the very fact that containers are intended to keep the cargo secure from theft and tampering. Apart from a very few specific exceptions it is impossible for the ship to know what is actually inside a container. The mis-declaration of weights is another issue but that has at least been addressed to some degree by the verified gross mass (VGM) rules introduced under SOLAS in 2016. Under these rules the shipper is responsible for providing the packed containers’ VGM and the carrier must receive the VGM prior to loading. Despite the rule being in place overweight containers are still common.

Whether it be hazardous cargoes wrongly described or overweight boxes declared as being lighter are a continuing safety hazard for container ships and as ships get bigger so does the problem. Questions have already been asked about the insurability of mega ships and incidents of this kind only add to the issue.

Fire On Ship

When hazardous cargoes are mis-declared the most common reason is not poor knowledge but a blatant attempt to avoid paying the premium freight rates for the cargo. It is bad enough that a box which should have been careful thought as to its location on board is treated as non-hazardous and stowed in a position where access is most restricted, but not fully describing a hazardous cargo also means that the crew may use wrong tactics for dealing with a problem. A water mist lance may be useful in fighting some fires, but the presence of water can actually increase the hazard if the product is a chemical that reacts with water to form flammable or explosive gases.

Sadly, there is no obvious answer to determining the actual content of a container if it is deliberately mis-declared for whatever reason and no effective sanctions on companies that practice deception because random checks on cargoes never take place anymore as they once did.

Adequacy of rules questioned

The IMO has responded to the growing problem of fire on container ships and in January 2016, changes to Regulation SOLAS II-2/10 required all new ships designed to carry containers on or above the weather deck to be fitted with at least one water mist lance, in addition to all other fire protection arrangements that should be provided on board as per existing regulations.

The changes also required all new ships designed to carry five or more tiers of containers on or above the weather deck to be provided with mobile water monitors, in addition to the water mist lance and all other fire protection arrangements that should be provided on board as per the previous regulations. Ships with a breadth up to 30 m should be provided with at least two mobile water monitors and ships with a breadth exceeding 30 m or more should be provided with at least four mobile water monitors.

Changes to the rules are all very well but some question whether the rules have kept pace with the ever-increasing size of container vessels. The 2016 changes were adopted in May 2014 when the largest vessels in service or on order were in the 18,000 – 19,000teu range. In terms of capacity the largest vessels today are already 15% - 20% larger.

Class societies and P&I clubs are very active in promoting fire safety on container ships with some having voluntary notations that support owners and shipbuilders that construct and equip vessels to higher standards than required under SOLAS. For example DNV GL has its F-AMC notation with which owners can demonstrate that they have enhanced the reliability of their fixed fire-extinguishing systems, improved the fire detection and CCTV systems, have additional firefighters’ outfits available and better UHF/VHF coverage.

Beyond SOLAS

Almost a decade ago, GL – then a separate class society – conducted a Formal Safety Assessment for the German flag state that resulted in a number of measures being identified that could be valuable additions to fire safety on container ships. These included:

  • Water screens between container bays
  • Water monitors between container bays (with height accessibility)
  • Water film for hatch cover
  • Mobile water monitors
  • Water mist lance
  • Detection plus water connection in each container containing dangerous goods
  • Container containing dangerous goods with autarkic detection and fire-fighting
  • Fire insulation for deck house

ABS also has a voluntary notation – FOC – for container ships related to fire safety that goes beyond SOLAS requirements. For example, where SOLAS requires a containership with a breadth of less than 30m to carry two portable water monitors; and vessel with a breadth of 30 m or more to carry four portable water monitors, ABS FOC requirements are for up to ten monitors depending on the beam of the vessel.

ABS justifies this because when considering the sizes of the surface areas that need to be covered, the limited coverage that any one monitor may provide, the possibility of restricted angles of attack limiting vertical reach, the possible interference due to lashing bridges and the number of monitors being carried would likely need to be split between the area forward and the area aft of the bay engaged in fire, having additional monitors available would be important.

Therefore, the optional ABS FOC notation calls for at least four mobile water monitors for ships with a breadth up to 30m, at least six mobile water monitors for ships with a beam of more than 30m up to 45m, at least eight mobile water monitors more than 45m up to 60m and ten mobile water monitors for ships having a beam greater than 60m.

The FOC notation also has requirements relating to the fire main and hydrants that go beyond SOLAS. ABS also has a FOC+ notation which addresses the concern that prolonged exposure to the excessive heat of a fire could weaken the hatch covers leading to their possible failure and the collapse of deck cargo into the hold. To address this concern, the FOC+ notation identifies specific requirements for a fixed water spray hatch cover cooling system.

Insurers call for changes

Not surprisingly insurers also have views on the matter. Last September, the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) issued a position paper on the matter. In it, IUMI acknowledged the IMO contribution but recommended that regulators, class and industry stakeholders should explore ways to improve fire detection and fire-fighting capabilities on container ships. The position paper included a contribution from the German Insurance Association (GDV) that set out an improved concept for firefighting facilities on board a containership.

Uwe-Peter Schieder, Marine and Loss Prevention, GDV, said of the proposed improvements, “We believe a new technical solution is needed to improve current firefighting practice on container vessels, particularly as these ships are continuing to grow in size. “We suggest creating individual fire compartments below deck to prevent fire from spreading. These compartments would be fitted with fixed CO2 and water-based firefighting systems. Boundary structures would also be fitted above deck to align with the water-cooled bulkheads below and also fitted with fixed fire-fighting systems. In addition, we also recommend the installation of enhanced fire detection systems”.

There have been several suggestions that individual containers could be fitted with devices that would monitor temperatures and trigger alarms if they became elevated. The GDV does not believe this is possible saying ‘It is impracticable to monitor each container separately and provide it with its own fire-detection and firefighting means. And even if it were technically possible, economic considerations are unlikely to make such a solution viable’.

P&I clubs have given plenty of advice to their members regarding fire prevention and as well as echoing some of the best practices around monitoring and training in fighting fires, some of the advice also centres on cargo descriptions. A circular by the UK P&I Club two years ago highlighted the many names that calcium hypochlorite – one of the main causes of fire in containers – is shipped under.

The club pointed out that IMDG rules require cargoes to be described by the ‘Proper Shipping Name’ (PSN) and UN number. Questioning any consignment book under a description listed as a PSN might identify some mis-declarations but a shipper determined to deceive would probably omit any UN number as including one would instantly mark out the consignment as hazardous.

Searching for solutions

Finding a solution to mis-declaration of cargo in containers is not going to be easy. In the immediate aftermath of the Maersk Honam incident, Maersk said it was investigating a limited amount of containers that have the same sender, receiver or commodity combination that match the containers in the specific cargo area where the fire started on the ship. The company stated that it expected to conduct about 150 inspections but also said that there was as yet no evidence that any cargo was mis-declared and that all containers were loaded in accordance with the safeguards described in the IMDG Code.

Doubtless the truth will be established after the official investigations have been carried out. The ship is flagged in Singapore and is classed by ABS so there should be a thorough investigation. The ship has the voluntary FOC notation, so the fire-fighting equipment would have exceeded the latest IMO regulations.

It is also difficult to envisage any technology or technique that can be fully effective in extinguishing or even containing fires effectively. Under deck fires can be tackled with CO2 but this is hardly as effective as when dealing with bulk or general cargoes as each individual container will have its own internal supply of air that will not be affected by releasing CO2. For above deck fires CO2 is useless in any case and water is the available option.

Since the problem of container fires has apparently persisted despite improved fire safety measures required on ships, there are some who are asking whether continual extra expenditure will actually solve the problem. Some suggest that removing the freight premium on hazardous cargoes may persuade some shippers to stop criminal misdeclarations and thus ensure that at least the containers will be stowed accordingly and the crew will be aware of contents and how to deal with problems.

What that will not stop is fires starting in the containers and possibly spreading before the fire can be tackled. Removing the freight premium would also only be effective in identifying hazardous cargoes if the shipper does not suffer financially or otherwise elsewhere along the logistic chain by declaring goods accurately.