The Ungoverned Space of Marine Fire Safety

Over the last few decades cargo has generally been increasingly transported in containers rather than as open bulk cargo, thus mistakenly leading shipping companies to disregard the importance of fire protection systems, instead focusing on transporting greater quantities facilitated by the container system. However, this outlook is dangerous and misplaced. The risk of fire is significant with growing incidences of fire events exposed in the trade press, posing a risk both to expensive cargo and to human life on-board the ships. With a movement towards autonomous shipping systems and smart-ships, the importance of remotely monitored fire-fighting systems could grow exponentially, providing the opportunity to monitor vessels from an external location. Technological developments and companies such as Coltraco Ultrasonics, are working towards this end goal. The current on-board fire-fighting facilities remain inadequate in the face of the capacity of such large vessels. Fire therefore remains an ever-present risk on the high seas.

Traditionally, the maritime industry treats fire protection systems as a necessary expenditure, rather than a means to safeguard valuable crew and cargo and maintain business continuity of the vessel. Owners focus on systems delivered at the most competitive rates rather than seeing fire protection as an investment.  The definition of a free market is an idealised form of a market economy in which buyers and sellers are allowed to transact freely based on a mutual agreement on price without state intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies or regulation. The competitiveness of the free market places great pressure on cost cutting: to deliver systems which often only minimally comply with regulations, and deliver asset protection at the most economical budget. With the value of assets, vessels and importance of business continuity growing, insurers are asked to underwrite almost incalculably high risk.  Unquestionably, the first priority of fire safety systems is to protect human life. Having said that, the economic benefits of a truly integrated, continuous, ultrasonic monitoring system in the future would be significant. Cargo damage remains an important negative result of on-ship fires, with 2 of the top 5 most expensive cargo claims on container ships in the last 10 years being fire-related according to the Swedish P&I Club Claims Analysis (2016). Fire protection measures should hence be understood as a worthwhile business investment. Yet we accept minimally compliant fire systems. Given both the crew lives and cargo are at stake, it seems unfathomable that regulations do not mandate fire systems should be permanently monitored rather than certified typically just once a year, if that, particularly since it is a regulatory obligation and or recommendation to ensure that crew can check these themselves.

Who would build a ship or offshore platform and install a power generating or auxiliary machinery without installing emergency power systems or monitoring their condition states? Who today would consider installing an alarm system without monitoring its overall status, not only its actuation, and integrating the whole system into the ship safety management system, with central monitoring being an essential part of it? These are basic engineering principles: building in redundancy and constantly monitoring critical systems. 

Traditionally, the industry cares little about this ungoverned space, with too few qualified engineers considered subject matter experts. Yet when it comes to marine fire maintenance, never mind continuous monitoring, of gaseous fire extinguishing systems, there is a lack of knowledge amongst the majority of the industry, regarding the potential risks. Awareness should exist about the huge expenses incurred by fire, both in terms of costs upfront from the damage and long-term due to reputation and unknown losses or damage to seafarers, vessel integrity, and cost of downtime and recovery. Above all is the risk to human life presented by fire. Poor maintenance of suppression systems risk accidental fatalities due to lack of training about the lethal properties of CO2 & Marine CO2 Systems (the predominant suppressant agent used on vessels, because it is the cheapest whilst being highly effective): when released it reduces oxygen levels to extinguish fire. Limited appreciation of the need for room integrity testing of protected spaces leads to minimal regulation compliance which could mean a failure of the fire system suppressing a fire because the room is unable to hold the discharged gas due to leaks of the space into which it actuates.

Gaseous extinguishing/suppression systems are installed to protect against special hazards in critical infrastructure at sea. They deliver the infrastructure resilience our advanced maritime society requires. If the hazard is special and the vessel is critical, then this is the case for the constant monitoring of the fire systems that aim to deliver their protection. There is a lack of knowledge of the characteristics of the various extinguishants and the types of fire for which they are suitable. For too many years the industry has been left to too few brilliant experts to determine safe outcome.

Two broad categories of ship and offshore extinguishing systems exist: sprinkler systems and pressurized gaseous systems. While the former can suffer leakage, the latter can cause catastrophic effect due to their pressures. These large gas cylinders are pressurised liquefied gases or non-liquefied gases that are pressurized on actuation. CO2 is permanently under 720 psi or 49 bar of pressure i.e. nearly 50 times atmospheric pressure (by comparison a cup of water at sea level exists at 1 bar or 14.5 psi). Its’ state changes under increased temperatures to one that is neither a liquid nor a gas. Gases under pressure are often effectively considered by the industry as single and passive cylinder columns of solid material from the perspective of their monitoring following installation. Whereas being under pressure and constantly changing under temperature they should be considered as active and dynamic systems requiring constant monitoring. These are not passive systems therefore; they are dynamic ones, and all dynamic systems under pressure need constant monitoring to ensure their effectiveness and longevity. An engineered marine fire system typically lasts 20 years, longer than some vessels! 

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