Call for Awareness: Fire at Sea

At sea, fire poses one the of biggest threat to ships. Fires on board ships can be devastating to crew, vessel and cargo. Fire safety standards on board cannot afford to slip. Sailing alone and at sea, without the ability to call upon the emergency services as a land-based asset might, means that ships must ensure that they don’t experience fires. The financial effects from on board fires can run into millions of dollars. Often after an engine room fire, a ship cannot proceed under its own power leading to salvage, repairs, downtime and cancellations, which are all highly costly. The costs are not just financial, engine room fires can be detrimental to the integrity of a navy or a shipping company and the lives of the passengers and crew are threatened by a fire.

In the shipping industry and especially in the cruise industry, engine fires can be extremely problematic. Given that 400 million European passengers every year entrust themselves to the safety of the ship on which they travel, any accidents on board are serious threats to the safety of those passengers. About 6% of fires on Ro-Ro passenger ships have resulted in loss of life or serious injury every year.1 In December 2014, 11 people were killed and several

were injured in a fire aboard the Norman Atlantic Ro- Ro passenger ship. In March 2017 a fire on board Renia Hosanna injured eight people and forced the evacuation of the ship.2 Chances must not be taken when lives are at risk, and when a vessel is at sea, this is all the time.

Research coordinated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has indicated that between 30% and 50% of all fires on merchant ships originate in the engine

room and 70% of those fires are caused by oil leaks from pressurized systems.3 Engine room fires are among the most common fires on ships due to the running machinery, and sources of fuel and ignition within them. There are generally two types of engine room fires: oil or electric. Oil fires are the most serious. Mechanical issues such as fracture, fatigue failure (machinery wearing out and then failing), and also under-tightened components or seals may result in catastrophic occurrences.

Complying with fire safety regulations does not guarantee safety. UK P&I Club, a large insurer of ships, has suggested that extended periods of time on board a ship without a fire can lead to complacency and therefore a failure of prioritizing fire prevention methods and practices. 4 It is impossible to prepare for all eventualities on a vessel, and it is oftften easier to focus on the prompt detection of fires and their effective extinguishment rather than the prevention of fires. Yet, even so, one of the reasons why accidents are still happening and fire safety is still a major issue in the shipping industry is the lack of development in firefighting equipment available on board container ships.

The Vice-Chairman of the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) stated that for global shipping, major fires on container ships are among the worst hazards.5 Part of the problem is that, as container ship sizes have increased, the firefighting equipment on board has not experienced the same development. In its 2016 annual report, the US Coast Guard identified that the greatest deficiency on board its ships was firefighting appliances.

An example of where the risk has become a danger is the container ship CCNI Arauco which caught fire in 2016 at port in Hamburg, Germany. Some 300 firefighters were needed after an unsuccessful seal and flood of the vessel’s hold with CO2 did not contain the fire. The hatch had to be flooded and then foam was used to bring the fire under control. The main difficulty came from the inadequate equipment the crew had to tackle the fire. As a result of this experience, there have been calls for the technology to change.

Another example is an incident that occurred on 9 January 2009 when a fire erupted within the engine room of asphalt tanker An Tai Jiang, as the ship was en route from Ulsan, South Korea, to Ningbo, China. The probable causes were identified as a failure and explosion of

the main engine crankcase. This failure resulted in large quantities of hot oil mist and flammable vapour in the engine room which was then ignited. In the investigation after the fire, overall, it was found that there were many issues regarding the state of the engine, but also with the maintenance and inspection of preventative equipment such as fire safety equipment. The investigation also found a lack of leadership qualities shown by the crew masters and security managers. In terms of the fire safety, the investigation showed that even though the fire detection and alarm systems were installed and inspected three months beforehand, both had failed during this incident, thus not alerting the crew at the appropriate time. This was due to improper maintenance. This result demonstrated that regular inspection may not prevent failure if maintenance is inadequate.7 UK P&I Club recommends that the high-risk threat of engine room fires is recognised and that a ship’s crew pay particular attention to training and the care, maintenance and correct operation of all firefighting equipment.

The lack of knowledge of how to control a fire effectively has created difficulties in the past. In one case, firefighting attempts were hindered by the ineffectiveness of the fire smothering system because of a lack of understanding of its correct method of deployment and lack of proper maintenance. In another occasion, a Chief Engineer did not operate the CO2 system release mechanism correctly and, as a result, only one cylinder (of 43) was discharged which had a negligible effect on the fire. It is possible that he released a cylinder from the main bank of cylinders instead of a pilot cylinder in the mistaken belief that this would trigger the release of the requisite number of cylinders. In other cases it was found that the filter cover bolts were improperly tightened and there was a lack of proper inspection routines.

The ‘ungoverned space’ is a term that was coined to explain the area on board a vessel where the regulations or safety infrastructure are not providing reliable safety – for example, the extinguishing systems being in place but not actually working in the event of the fire. This life-threatening issue must be dealt with, with specific regard to loss of contents in fixed fire extinguishing systems. Gaseous extinguishing systems leak, meaning that in a cylinder the contents may have dropped, and in the event of a fire the cylinder would not have enough suppressant in it to extinguish the fire. As well there is a need for improvements to engine room integrity testing. The neglect of basic routine testing and maintenance of three key areas substantially increases the risk of an engine room fire:

  • The cylinder agent content in the fire extinguisher installations;
  • The associated pipework; and
  • The room integrity of the protected space into which the suppressant agent discharges

There are some solutions. As a first example, there are ultrasonic liquid level indicators to identify the fire extinguisher agent liquid level in under 30 seconds with one competent user.8 This compares to 15 minutes in another system which includes weighing with two personnel, who must be qualified in fire safety inspections, which most crew are not. The ultrasonic indicators comply with IMO SOLAS FSS Code which requires crew to have the means on board to test the installation agent content. This means that the crew on board a vessel must have means to be able to check how much content is left in the cylinder

so that they can be sure that whilst they are at sea, the extinguishing systems are in full working order. A second example includes ultrasonic thickness gauges, ultrasonic flow metres, acoustic emissions-bearing indicators which all inspect and provide condition monitoring of metal work, pipework and rotating machinery. A third example is ultrasonic watertight and airtight integrity indicators to identify leak sites in compartments. They ensure that the room or vessel which the system is protecting is able to withstand the pressure of the agent when it discharges and that the compartment will hold that agent for the design concentration required to suppress a fire (when an gaseous extinguishing system is installed, it is designed for a specific space – e.g. the engine room – and the size of the
system is in relation to the ‘protected space.’)

Maintaining high standards of fire safety practice does not have to be expensive or time consuming. This is a call for awareness of the problem and for action to be taken now.

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