At sea, fire poses one the of biggest threat to ships: according to Lloyds List, almost 10% of all total losses at sea for the last ten years have been caused by fire. Unlike shore-based workers, crew can’t pick up the phone and wait for a firefighting crew to arrive. Ultimately, ships are their own fire brigade. And 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 gets into difficulties.
According to the International Maritime Organisation, Safety of Life at Sea, Fire Safety Systems (IMO SOLAS FSS) Code; there is a need for crew to test the contents of their CO2, FM-200® & NOVEC™ 1230 gaseous extinguishing systems in between the periodic inspection, maintenance and certification intervals. These periodic inspections are conducted annually or biennially, and only by an accredited service agent, such as an external marine servicing company.
Yet, the FFS code also specifically states that the crew must test their extinguishing installations in between the periodic inspection, maintenance and certification. Having an annual inspection by accredited marine servicing companies is not enough – the crew must take responsibility for its own fire protection. However, what must be noted is that the crew are often not trained or certified to shut-down, dismantle, weigh and re-install the gaseous cylinders – the traditional method.
A ship’s gaseous extinguishing system typically comprises between 200 and 600 cylinders each containing 45KG of CO2 under high 720 psi/ 49 bar pressure. One of the highest probabilities of discharge occurs during their maintenance. Some marine service companies estimate that 20% of a ship’s CO2 cylinders have discharged or partially leaked their contents at some point in their lifetime. The loss of contents in the cylinders poses a serious threat to the crew, as this could mean that in the event of the fire, there may not be enough CO2 to extinguish the fire.
Despite this, the risk of leaking and discharging is accepted as part of their use and this is shown in the IMO SOLAS FFS regulations that demand their upkeep.
The regulations also state that “means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire extinguishing medium in the container”. Using an ultrasonic liquid level indicator is the only way that the crew can safely test their CO2 without disturbing them. If marine 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 could do their work without allowing for time pressures, then marine safety would improve.
Bad industry practice is unacceptable when fire risk may have catastrophic results due to risk to life, downtime in operation due to ship safety and repair work and incalculable reputational damage. The crew, cargo and vessel must be protected when at sea because it is its own fire brigade without accessibility to typical emergency services. This is a call to respond to regulations with a rigorous attitude, to go above and beyond, and to provide security of life and infrastructure.