Tower fire has lessons for shipping

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 16 June 2017


Few cannot have seen the TV images of the burning tower block in London this week. With 17 deaths and many more unaccounted for it cannot be considered anything other than a tragedy. Initially it would seem to have little to do with shipping but there are in fact some lessons to be learned both for immediate safety and by regulators. There are good reasons to think that the cause of the fire may have been an exploding domestic refrigerator. These unremarkable domestic appliances are in fact the cause of many recent building fires and this is due to older refrigerant gases such as Freon being withdrawn because of their supposed ozone depleting effect. In most cases the gases have been replaced by alternatives which although not damaging to the ozone layer are highly flammable and in some cases explosive. Many ships will also have these appliances on board so a similar risk will exist on all such vessels. Another factor in the rapid spread of the fire up the outside of the building could be the type of cladding used and the method of application. The fire in London is just the latest in a string of similar fires that have affected high-rise buildings around the world. Since they have been approved for use it should be accepted that they are safe but this is clearly not the case. In some cases the panel cladding is used for aesthetic purposes but its prime purpose is as insulation to make the building more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is the main driver in much regulation in all aspects of life including in shipping. It is vital that the unintended consequences of regulation need to be taken much more seriously than it currently is. Several in our industry have warned of the effect of EEDI in producing underpowered ships and although this issue is now being considered, the push for more regulation from environmentalists and regional bodies is relentless and there will certainly be other areas where far more caution needs to be exercised. The spread of the London fire inside the building is also being spoken about with some experts questioning whether recent alterations to the building were carried out correctly. In particular they are suggesting that penetrations between walls and floors for cabling and piping may not have been adequately protected against the risk of fire or gas leakage. This is a problem that the shipping and offshore industry is also experiencing and which was covered in the company profile section of the Spring issue of the ShipInsight Journal.
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