Fire at Sea: What do the marine insurers say?

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The general concern for marine insurers is the growing size of ships and the inadequacy of fire prevention measures on board. As vessels become larger and more sophisticated, a greater financial interest is tied up into one ship, meaning that the risks are magnified if the vessel would get into difficulties e.g. a fire. From a marine insurer’s perspective, it is a simple equation: the larger the vessel, the more cargo it will carry, and hence the greater the sum insured.

Much research has been conducted in the statistics of fires at sea. According to the VTT technical research centre in Finland the frequency of fires resulting in a total loss is 〖10〗^(-8) nmi (nautical miles). This is based on the average vessel travelling 60,000 nmi each year. This would mean that if there was only one vessel in the world, it would need to travel 100 million nmi for it to ‘statistically’ have one occurrence of fire resulting in total loss. However, given that there are roughly 55,000 commercial vessels over 1,000 dwt at sea it can be calculated that there is expected to be 33 vessels a year with fire resulting in total loss (calculations below).

Posed threat of loss of crew, vessel and the cargo guidance by the German Insurance Associations has set out an ‘improved concept’ for firefighting facilities on container ships. Vice Chair of the IUMI Loss Prevention Committee, Uwe-Peter Schieder, explained: “We believe a new technical solution is needed to improve current firefighting practice on container vessels, particularly as these ships are continuing to grow in size.”


There are numerous example of fire at sea, with just a few included below:

(a) MSC Flaminia, 2012

In July 2012, the container ship was exposed to an uncontrollable fire which tragically lead to three fatalities and two severely injured crew members, as well as dire damage to the ship structure and its cargo. In this example, the actuation of the CO2 system failed when it actuated without instruction in the engine room, although the discharge was intended for cargo hold 4, which turned off the auxiliary boiler and auxiliary fan for the main engine. This led to an out of control fire which required three salvage tugs to deal with the effects of the explosions and fire. However, the extent of the fire meant that the salvage teams could not enter the vessel for 4 days. Cargo areas 3-7 in the ship were significantly damaged and the ships structure was weakened, requiring replacement. Under the pressures, the hatch covers lost their integrity and bulkheads were severely damaged which led to water ingress in all the cargo. The ruling from this event has stated that $280 million of liability will be shared as a result of the incident .

2.4 (b) Barzan, 2015

On September 2015, a fire was detected inside one of the cargo holds of Barzan, a Maltese registered container ship. The fixed CO2 system was used but due to a number of leaks in the CO2 line, the required amount of gas did not reach the cargo hold to be effective to smother the fire. The starboard fire main line then developed a large leak at a joint in the under deck passage way and had to be isolated. This restricted the fire-fighting efforts to only the port side, and rendered the starboard side water drenching system unusable. The safety investigation concluded that although the CO2 system and fire mains had been tested satisfactorily prior to the vessel’s delivery in May 2015, the quality of the workmanship had contributed to the subsequent failure of both systems .

Using an ultrasonic liquid level indicator is the only way that the crew can safely test their CO2 without disturbing them. Coltraco Ultrasonics designed the Portalevel® MAX Marine & Portamarine® ultrasonic liquid level indicators, as radioactive units were being phased out. If shipping companies implemented the IMO SOLAS FSS codes by testing safely and quickly (just 30-60 seconds per cylinder) by using liquid level indicators and marine servicing companies were able to do their work without allowing for time pressures, then marine safety would be far safer.

Solutions for any vessels marine gaseous extinguishing system exist:

  • Portalevel® MAX Marine liquid level indicators used by the crew weekly to test for contents
  • Portascanner® WATERTIGHT, watertight integrity test indicators used by the crew to test for compartmentation
  • Portapipe® pipework integrity indicators used to test for pipework obstructions and the Portagauge® thickness gauges for pipework corrosion
  • Compressed air testing of the pipework and flanges to test the pipework system’s ability to withstand the pressures of the gas on actuation (and this is the only test which recommended to be solely the responsibility of a  “responsible” shore-based contractor)

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