Fires on container ships

Updated 11 Oct 2019

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Cargo is a common source of fire on ships. Some precautions can be taken if cargoes are known to have a particular issue connected with them such as spontaneous combustion in coal or iron ore cargoes or the need to be inerted to prevent volatile fumes from oil and gas cargoes escaping in tankers.

Many recent cases of fire that have led to total loss of the ship have involved cargoes inside containers. An article published in 2018 by the Through Transport Club, suggested that container fires may occur on a weekly basis and statistics indicate there is a major container cargo fire at sea roughly every 60 days.

These have presented a particular problem for the industry as a whole and for crews on the ships affected because it is almost impossible to fight such fires using the equipment normally available on board. Some attempt at solving this has been made with the IMO’s new requirement (SOLAS regulations IMO MSC.1/ Circ. 1472) for some new container ships built from 2016 onwards to be equipped with lances able to pierce containers and fire monitors able to assist in directing water jets on to containers in high stacks. Ships with a breadth up to 30m should be provided with at least two mobile water monitors and ships with a breadth exceeding 30m should be provided with at least four mobile water monitors.

A lance is attached to the fire main by a hose and a battery-operated drill is usually used to pierce the container so that it can be inserted into the container. Most lance systems are designed to then be left inserted into the container and to operate continuously without the need for the crew to remain in the vicinity. Although this might extinguish some fires, it should not be forgotten that some chemicals react with water and if these are present in the container, a water lance may actually make matters worse.

However, both of these were available on the 2017-built, 15,262TEU Maersk Honam which suffered a major cargo fire in early March 2018 resulting in the death of four seafarers, but were ineffective in bringing the fire under control. Since then, there have been more container ship fires including two this year in the shape of Yantian Express and APL Vancouver. These are just the latest in a string of fires usually found to be connected to cargo being wrongly packed and wrongly declared.

To many, including classification societies and insurers, the current rules are inadequate and need to be revisited on a regular basis. Class societies are developing voluntary notations that go beyond the IMO requirements. For example, the ABS voluntary notation FOC which covers fire protection on container ships may require not four but 10 portable fire 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 together with the possibility of restricted angles of attack limiting vertical reach and the possible interference due to lashing bridges, 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 so having additional monitors available would be important.

The FOC notation also has requirements relating to the fire main and hydrants that go beyond SOLAS. ABS also has an 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.

The International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has called upon regulators, class and industry stakeholders to explore ways to improve fire detection and fire-fighting capabilities on container ships. One suggestion that has come from one of the IUMI’s own members suggests 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 be fitted with fixed fire-fighting systems.

While these are all sensible suggestions, unless shipowners adopt them voluntarily or are forced to action by more stringent regulation, the likelihood of the issue of container ship fires being resolved any time soon is very small.

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