Fires on board giant container ships often have devastating consequences. However, firefighting requirements as set by SOLAS and STCW are yet to catch up with the current sizes of these ships, according to Nick Haslam, Principal Master Mariner at Brookes Bell. Crew training in particular is said to fall woefully short.

In a webinar organised by TT Club and UK P&I Club on 17 February, both Haslam and John Gow, Senior Investigator at IFIC, discussed container ship fires and why they are so difficult to tackle.

Container ship fires are a serious issue and need to be addressed better as they often result in loss of life and serious injury, says Gow. In addition, he stresses the cost involved in such an incident. ‘For the MSC Flaminia, the aggregate claims were USD 260 million,’ he explains. ‘But considering tonnage size, this may soon hit the 1 billion mark.’

Undeclared and misdeclared cargo

Battling a fire successfully, requires the crew to know what cargo resides in the container. This is a big problem, according to Gow, as (dangerous) goods are often undeclared or misdeclared. He says the reasons for this are that such goods result in a higher surcharge and possibly restrictions/prohibitions set by the carrier.

‘If you don’t know what your cargo is, it is very challenging to adopt the correct firefighting measures and deploy the correct firefighting medium,’ stresses Gow. So, here there is a job for companies upstream to prevent cargo being mis- or undeclared.

If you don’t know what your cargo is, it is very challenging to adopt the correct firefighting measures

Gow says that the availability of breathing apparatus on board ships is a ‘big step forward’. But he always warns of their limitations. ‘On paper, a breathing apparatus will work for about thirty minutes. In reality, when faced with anxiety, the breathing rate will increase, leaving less time to tackle the fire as a crew member has to return within minutes.’

Speed of response

The speed of response is governed by the operational procedures on board. Gow: ‘Typically someone is sent to confirm, the alarm is raised, then your muster, and then you deploy.’ However, it may also be necessary to take into consideration the position of the ship and the direction of the smoke. ‘The ship may have to be manoeuvred to facilitate safer access. This can have a significant effect on the speed of response. Whether conditions and ship movements are also a factor, has to be considered when the vessel is subject to a fire peril.’

‘In addition, equipment may be placed at specific points round the vessel, so that when the crew is mustered, they can be deployed to access the equipment that is accessible, but the fire may also block fire lockers and may limit the amount of equipment that you have available,’ Gow continues.

Yet, the challenge at sea, is that additional resources could be hours or days away

When compared to land-based firefighting, the number of firefighters sent in to fight the fire is about equivalent as on sea, where a crew on large container vessels is typically around 23. Gow: ‘Yet, the challenge at sea, is that additional resources could be hours or days away.’

Deck and under deck fires

‘The construction of the ship can be both a disadvantage and an advantage,’ explains Gow. ‘Different areas are separated by a metal construction. The metal offers a degree of separation and slows down the spread of the fire both laterally and vertically. However, the main issue is looking at the cargo and the circumstances of under deck and deck fires.’

‘Typically machinery spaces and accommodation are well protected, but do have their own challenges,’ adds Gow. ‘Think about steep ladders and slippery surfaces. It usually requires a number of crew to assist in that kind of operation.’

Also read: Self-ignition of cargo likely cause of fire on board Maersk Honam

Gow points out that with deck fires, the ‘cargo has no real separation and is in close proximity, the closer cargo is, the quicker the fire can spread. Yet it is quite easy to reach the cargo as compared to under deck areas, but you are still working in confined spaces.’

Limiting factors according to Gow are space, height, difficulty of access, having to rely on somebody observing the fire. He stresses there is not always a visible flame, sometimes there is only light smoke, ‘and you only notice it once the fire erupts’. He states it can be difficult to reach a container above the lashings, while up close and personal fire fighting is most effective.

There is simply no question of sending a crew under deck to fight a fire

He says under deck fires pose a real problem. ‘There is simply no question of sending a crew under deck to fight a fire, both because of the fire situation and because you are dealing with a confined space entry. It just would not make sense to commit crews to that type of situation.’

Detection and ventilation could be improved

When looking at a cargo hold fire, the limiting factor according to Gow is detection: ‘The systems, aspirating smoke detectors, have not changed since the days of open holds. In 1946, a test in the US demonstrated there was a significant amount of time between detection and alarm being raised due to the distance that smoke has to be drawn from the hold. Yet, we still use the same method while cargo stowage has changed considerably.’

He adds that control of ventilation also plays a significant role in the control of the fire. ‘We should be looking at mechanical means to control ventilation, so anything that can be done to reduce the need for someone to physically close a hatch or vent should be engineered out. That would assess and control the fire more rapidly at an early stage.’

Alternative fuels and propulsion systems are emerging risks

While he agrees that alternative power sources such as electrical, hydrogen and ammonia serve a purpose, Gow thinks they also ‘present their own particular considerations terms of training, adequate procedures and equipment needed by the crew to tackle incidents involving this type of innovation.’

The legislative framework is not keeping pace with new power sources

He adds: ‘Whilst ammonia does not seem to be at the forefront as a future fuel for vessels, the potential is that when something like ammonia is used, then it brings its own hazards and risks for crew and significant differences in how an incident involving ammonia should be tackled by the crew. There is concern that as we move forward with these innovations, that the legislative framework is not keeping pace, and we are relying on companies and shipowners to move faster than the legislative requirements and provide the skills and equipment to deal with incidents involving such risks.’

Training needs to be improved

In addition, he points out the disparancy in fire fighting training on land versus at sea, where training on land is much more comprehensive. Yet both are expected to be professional firefighters. ‘So on board training could be better, it should be made both more onerous and more realistic,’ says Gow. ‘Crew should be taught to deal with reduced visibility, loud noises, difficult communication and having to work by touch.’

Haslam wholeheartedly agrees with this and says: ‘Fires on board ULCVs (ultra large container vessels, Ed.) are often significant in nature, and fall well outside of the limited firefighting training required of the majority of seafarers. The fires may often involve significant quantities of chemicals often highly reactive with high risk of explosion. Use of simple fire hoses and jets in such cases may prove to be ineffective and may place the seafarers at significant risk.’

Fires on board ULCVs are often significant in nature, and fall well outside of the limited firefighting training required of the majority of seafarers

‘The largest container vessels presently at sea are capable of carrying in excess of 20,000 tonnes of mixed chemicals as part of their everyday cargo,’ adds Haslam. ‘The seafarers on board are only required to undertake basic firefighting skills. If this is compared to a 20,000 DWT chemical tanker, where the training requirements vary significantly and are specific to that type of vessel, due to the potential nature of the cargoes on board, it may be seen that despite similar cargo carrying capacity, the standards of training differ greatly.’

Regulations have not kept up with ULCV growth

‘Given the significant growth of container carrying capacity on board modern ULCVs, and despite the numerous amount of amendments to SOLAS and STCW, it may be questionable whether the standards required have kept pace with this growth,’ states Haslam. ‘There is little to differentiate the SOLAS requirements for a 10,000-DWT general cargo and that of 200,000+ DWT container vessel capable of carrying significant quantities of highly volatile chemical cargoes.’

Haslam: ‘With very few exceptions, these ships are treated very similarly under SOLAS. They are no doubt significantly different.’

He points out that ULCV SOLAS regulations state that the crew should try to ‘contain, control and suppress fire and explosion in the compartment of origin’ and that ‘fixed fire detection and a fire alarm system shall be installed’. The ship also needs ‘at least one water mist lance, and mobile water monitors (MWMs)’.

‘Yet, fires are most often extinguished by specialised teams and vessels using high volumes of water, far above that required by SOLAS,’ Haslam adds.

Also read: Shipping ever safer, but fires are cause for concern

In addition MWMs weigh in excess of 20 kg and need to get close to the fire. This means a crew member has to carry it up the vertical ladder access, not a simple task.

Fixed water monitors

Haslam concludes with: ‘Given that history has shown us what can happen on board container ships when they are subjected to a large fire, is it not time that the construction of these vessels, and the training of their crews is revised to reflect the devastating nature of these fires?’

In addition, both Gow and Haslam feel it is important to improve detection systems so that the speed of detection is improved. Haslam also says that ‘anything added to capability on board has got the be an advantage’ and feels fixed water monitors could do just that. ‘Fitted to accommodation and engine room blocks they can offer significant firefighting capacity and their range covers the whole stack above deck. There will always be hoses, but they have their limitations.’

Picture (top): DNV GL developed a new fire protection class notation and awarded it for the first time to the MSC Samar (by DNV GL).