Ferry fires on the rise

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

13 February 2017


A paper issued last week by the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) examines the growing problem of fire on freight and ro-pax ferries. While the paper mainly focuses on ro-ro passenger vessels, similar concerns with fires exist also for car carriers. It is also worth noting that damage to the cargo on these vessels can be significant, although the fire itself may be contained. According to the report, the frequency of fires in the car/ro-ro passenger vessel segment is increasing and is currently at a level twice the frequency of fires on most other vessel types. While cargo on other vessels categories are specifically loaded and packaged for carriage by sea, cargo that is rolled off and on a vessel represents a significant roadside fire risk. Although the risk of fire is substantially lower when a car/lorry is in transit than in operation, the high number of negligible risks could add up to a significant risk. More than one per cent of vessels in the car/ro-ro passenger vessel segment experiences a fire every year. Compared with other causes, fires are often more severe when they occur, resulting in tragic loss of life and costly damage to vessels. Cargo fires are the most frequent type in this segment. Casualty data indicates that a very high percentage of ro-ro fires emanate from the vehicles themselves, specifically from trailer reefer units, cab fires and electrical and engine fires, rather from the cargo itself. IUMI strongly recommends that regulators, shippers and operators address the way vehicles presented for carriage can be made safe, thus effectively improving the inherent risk of carrying vehicles on ro-ro tonnage, specifically lorries. Undeclared or mis-declared cargo is considered another notable fire hazard on board. The electrical wiring of the vessel itself has also been identified as a source of fires. IUMI suggests that in particular for older ferries this could be an area for further consideration by regulators, operators and class to ensure up-to-date verification of proper wiring. While appropriate data may be found in some of the publications referenced by the report, there is no indication of which causes of fire are more recent which information would have been useful in identifying trends. Between five and seven years ago there was a problem with contaminated refrigerant gas being the cause of several containers exploding on container ships and in ports and it may be that there is some connection. Last November MSC97 instructed the Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment (SSE) to “review SOLAS chapter II-2 and associated codes to minimize the incidence and consequences of fires on ro-ro spaces and special category spaces of new and existing ro-ro passenger ships”, with a target completion year of 2019 and coming into effect in 2020.