Although the value of the marine assets that fire systems protect is increasing rapidly, the competitiveness of the free market encourages cost cutting. Often, cheap systems only minimally comply with the regulations and, in fact, there are very few qualified engineers who may be considered experts on the subject. This creates an environment in which a ‘safety first’ culture is both eschewed and unrewarded.
“This attitude feels in direct opposition to that in the aerospace sector, where if a fault occurs on an aircraft, that information is quickly and openly shared with airline operators, civil aviation authorities and engineering organisations,” says Carl Hunter, CEO & MD of Coltraco Ultrasonics. “In shipping, unless a fatality occurs, incidents are often left unreported.”
With many ships sailing with partially-filled, over-filled or empty carbon dioxide cylinders and many undisclosed instances of accidental discharges or slow seepages there is real cause for concern – and impetus to change.
“Given both the lives of crew and cargo are at stake, it seems unfathomable that these systems are not permanently monitored rather certified just once a year,” says Hunter, noting also that that crew should be in a position to inspect them. The FSS Code stipulates that “means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire extinguishing medium in the containers”.
Arguably, the existence of regulations (such as those set by IMO) guides – and occasionally curbs – the direction taken by the free market. This then means that the current state of affairs, where ‘price is king’ results either from an unwillingness by regulators to create an environment where safe engineering is rewarded or because the industry itself is unaware of new technology that will help it meet both the spirit and letter of the regulation.
Technologies already exist that can easily and accurately monitor everything from gases under pressure to liquefied contents and corrosion of pipework. The traditional method of using a cylinder pressure gauge (located at the meeting point of valve and neck of a pressurised cylinder) is both obsolete and impractical – especially when cost-cutting may result in use of minimally-compliant gauge mechanisms.