Container ship fires are not an easy issue to solve

One crewman dead, four seafarers missing and the 2017-built Maersk Honam and its cargo of over 7,000 containers in danger of being a total loss. Fires on container ships are fortunately an infrequent occurrence relative to the number of box ships in operation but each year adds more incidents to the growing list.

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. In such cases, the safety measures required under SOLAS introduced two years ago in January 2016 are useless in preventing the initial spread of the fire in the holds of the ship.

The 2016 requirement in the amended 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.

It 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 existing 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.

As a ship built after those requirements, Maersk Honam will undoubtedly have had all the necessary equipment on board and the four missing seafarers engaged on fire fighting duties were probably making use of some of them. While the lance and monitors could be used on some containers on deck they would not have been of use for a fire that started in the hold. Even within the holds of cellular container ships, systems such as CO2 flooding or water mist are not effective means of fire fighting.

The question of mis-declared cargoes 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.

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.

It seems therefore that the Maersk Honam incident is the latest but will certainly not be the last in the list of incidents involving fires on container ships.