Insurers call for ship industry to tackle container ship fires

Indian firefighters battle the blaze aboard Maersk Honam. Credit: Indian Coast Guard.

The two recent cargo fires on container ships Maersk Kensington, 6,188 teu, and Maersk Honam, 15,262 teu, in March have thrown stark light on the continuing risk fires pose to life, cargo, and ships.

While the CO2 firefighting system on Maersk Kensington was able to quickly quell the fire on board and all 26 crew were safely evacuated ashore, the outcome of the blaze on Maersk Honam was far more tragic: four crew lost their lives and one is still missing, believed to have died from the toxic fumes that spewed from the cargo stored in the forward part of the ship.

These incidents demonstrate not only how easily fires can still occur on container ships but also how a fire on board can have drastically different outcomes. Container ship fires are not a common occurrence. According to IHS Markit data there have been a total of 66 fires or explosions on container ships between 2013 and 2018, with just three incidents resulting in a total loss.

Call for action

Despite the low frequency with which fires occur, P&I insurer the Swedish Club recently warned owners how deadly they could be and urged them to do more to reduce the risk of blazes on board.

The club co-authored a guide for its members on cutting the risk of cargo fires, focusing on cargo self-heating, with Neil Sanders, a partner at Burgoynes, an international partnership that specialises in the investigation of fires, explosions, and other major incidents.

The International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code (IMSBC) and International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG) address self-heating, Sanders told SAS sister

title Fairplay, but these requirements must “always be understood and followed”. He stressed that self-heating and related issues “can affect a wide variety of cargoes, including coal, iron in the form of direct reduced iron [DRI], metal turnings, charcoal, seed cake, biomass, fertilisers, solid chemicals, and liquid chemicals”.

Meanwhile the Swedish Club said, for better or worse, when a cargo fire occurs, the outcome for the cargo, vessel, and their own lives is down to those on board. Lars Malm, its director of strategic business development and client relations, told SAS sister title Fairplay, “When a fire breaks out on board a vessel there is no fire service ready to assist in extinguishing it – that is up to the crew themselves. All those who have worked on board a vessel are aware of the difficulties involved with managing a fire and the crucial importance of fire prevention.”

Looking at the results of this the May issue Safety at Sea’s survey on fire safety on board respondents suggested that owners were largely abiding by guidelines and crew were

receiving fairly comprehensive training and regular drills.

What is concerning is the number of times crew felt that these were merely being paid lip service, with training or drills a mere box-ticking exercise rather than ensuring crew

are truly competent or prepared for a real fire on board.

Some respondents also said that while tests of firefighting systems on board were carried out regularly, defects were not reported, while others said personal protective equipment (PPE) was not up to scratch.

Current provisions

Firefighting systems are regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the regulation has grown weightier and more comprehensive over the years, from brief mentions of patrols and the need for water pumps to tackle fires, to a dedicated chapter (Chapter II-2)

introduced through amendments in the 1970s and 1980s.

The International Code For Fire Safety Systems (FSS Code) adopted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in its 73 session and which came into force on 22 July 2002, provides international standards of specific engineering specifications for fire safety systems required by Chapter II-2 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. It covers everything from international shore connections and personnel protection to low location lighting, fixed fire detection and fire alarm systems, and all kinds of fire-extinguishing system.

However, prompted by the tragedy of Maersk Honam, the International Union of Marine Insurance has stepped up its pleas for shipping to do more to prevent cargo fires and

place it high on their agenda.

Speaking to SAS, vice-chairman of the loss prevention committee at IMUI Uwe-Peter Schieder said that the past 40 years had seen a movement to cheaper ships and transport that saw less attention given to effective fire detection and extinguishing systems on board, and the removal of cheap but effective options such as water curtains. “It must be in the interest of shipowners to have a chance to fight fires to prevent loss of life and environmental damage. They must give seafarers the chance to manage the problems on board. It costs money – about 1–2% of the ship price – but safety always does.”

Schieder stressed that fire extinguishing systems were worse today than they were decades ago because shipbuilding had moved to the Far East and owners were focused on building cheaper and larger container ships. “A 2,000 teu container vessel built 45 years ago would have firefighting systems, monitors on decks, a water curtain on the front of deck. Today they [owners and builders] have reduced the development of firefighting systems to level zero. This is the real mess we find ourselves in and we are quite concerned about it.”

IUMI plans on bringing this theme to the IMO and will begin a formal safety assessment in partnership with a German loss prevention committee to discuss “a new workable firefighting system” for new ships. This will include on and under deck ‘telescopable’ monitors, water curtains between every 2,000 teu block of containers, and water shields. “This would cost around 1.5–2% of a new ship, but after 40 years of no safety development in the west, that is acceptable,” said Schieder.

Once the formal safety assessment is complete, IUMI will come together with shipping companies, as well as with flag states, to take the theme to the IMO. “We don’t

want to change technical systems on running container vessels as this would be too expensive but if we plan from the beginning, it will be much cheaper and much more

effective,” said Sheider. “If from 2025 or 2028 all new container vessels are fitted with a standard firefighting system, the cost will be the same for all container owners,

so there will be no economic imbalance.”

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