Fire Safety Improvements are Required

In a recent position paper, the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) said it believed “further steps are required to improve fire safety”. In this article, Coltraco Ultrasonics break down why this is the case.

Why does fire safety need to be improved?

According to Lloyds List, almost 10% of all total losses at sea in the last decade were caused by a fire on board.

Statistics based on the VTT Technical research centre in Finland show there is expected to be 33 vessels a year with fire resulting in total loss.*

What risk does fire pose to the crew?

Lives are at stake. This is unacceptable.

Tragically in March 2018, 5 people lost their lives in the Maersk Honam fire. Financially, the damage from the fire will be the biggest on record, running into hundreds of millions of dollars. Disappointingly, this was not an unusual event. In container vessels alone, the past decade has seen a number of serious fires including MSC Flaminia in July 2012 causing up to $280 million of liability, Eugen Maersk in June 2013, APL Austria in February 2017 and MSC Daniela in April 2017. In July 2018, the merchant vessel SSL Kolkata sank due to a fire than ran for 3 weeks. From SSL Kolkata A number of containers already went into water and are floating in the area, endangering shipping.

What concerns have been voiced?

Fires on board ships can be devastating, to crew, vessel and cargo.

The general concern for IUMI 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.

What protects the crew from fire?

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. (Other suppressant clean agents such as FM-200® and Novec™1230 are becoming more widely used.)

How are we failing to protect the crew with these gaseous extinguishing systems?

Because gaseous extinguishing systems are highly pressurised, the risk of leaking and discharging is accepted as part of their use and this is shown in the regulations that demand their upkeep.

IMO SOLAS & FSS Code Chapter - “Means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire extinguishing medium in the containers.”

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 also know that occasionally marine “servicing companies” unintentionally leave it disabled.

Why is this the case?

Time pressures.

Most marine servicing companies only have 4 hours on a vessel in a port to test up to 600 cylinders. It is known that it takes 15 minutes for a 2 person team to shutdown, dismantle and weigh a single CO2 cylinder, which is equal to 16 cylinders in 4 hours. Yet despite this, every CO2 cylinder on the vessel receives a “tested and certified sticker” and the marine CO2 system is certified and a certificate is issued.

As well as this, any vessel with a gaseous extinguishing system needs to consider 3 factors:

  • Unless compartmentation exists the gas (e.g. CO2) will not be able to concentrate
  • Unless the gaseous contents exists in sufficient designed amount, extinguishing will not occur
  • The pipework and flanges must be tested to be free of corrosion-generated particulates which block the nozzles and must be tested to be able to withstand the shock of gas discharge on actuation


What measures should be taken?

Fire protection on board is not unlike fire protection in buildings: If a fire breaks out and is not quickly brought under control, all that is left is a ruined shell, fit only for the wrecking ball. In turn, in the case of ships, a total write-off. To better protect the cargo on container ships, with a value running into many millions, it makes sense to modernize the on-board facilities for containing and extinguishing fires.”

There is a call to respond to regulations with a rigorous attitude, to go above and beyond, to provide security of life and infrastructure.

Currently, there is a failure to protect the lives of the crew. Ensuring the safety of the crew is not an option, it is a requirement.

What is the solution?

The crew must take responsibility for its own fire protection.


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 indicator, 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 vessels would be far safer.

Solutions for the monitoring of the vessels gaseous extinguishing system exist:

  • Portalevel® MAX Marine liquid level indicators used by the crew weekly to test for contents
  • Portasteele® Calculating fire suppression agent weight CALCULATOR converts the liquid level readings into a weight measurement, logging the recorded data with easy exporting via email. By reducing time needed for reports, more time can be spent on ensuring the safety of the vessel.
  • 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

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