Why don’t gaseous systems always extinguish the fire?

To extinguish a fire, ships need:

  • the correct amount of gas in the fire suppression system cylinders to extinguish the fire
  • compartmentation integrity to starve the fire of oxygen
  • pipework integrity to ensure the gas discharges correctly

To ensure vessels sail safely these points must be implemented, meaning:

  • the crew must have the means to test the cylinder content themselves ie. liquid level indicator, as the crew is not qualified to traditionally weigh
  • there is a need to educate the crew about fire engineering to protect against risk of CO2 actuation in manned areas and to ensure compartmentation etc

As stated in IMO SOLAS FSS Ch5. “Means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire extinguishing medium in the container”. Often this is misunderstood, this code specifically states that the crew must test their extinguishing installations in between the periodic inspection, maintenance and certification. Only having the annual inspection by accredited marine servicing companies is not enough – the crew must take responsibility for their 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. To overcome this, ships need to test their CO2 systems for contents in-between the annual certification checks by marine servicing companies. 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® handheld ultrasonic liquid level indicators, because 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 marine safety would be far safer.

  • Examples of accidents where CO2 discharge failed

There are numerous example of fire at sea, with just a few included below. In each of these examples, the actuation of the CO2 system failed to control the fires on the vessels, some with devastating results. If gaseous extinguishing systems were at their full concentration at all times, then in the event of a fire, they should be able to extinguish the fire. However, as demonstrated below, they were not able to. Why is this?
In every fire marine accident report they nearly always say the CO2 discharged on actuation. If it did the fire should have been extinguished. The only reasons that it did not must be that:

  • The system did not exceed the design concentration:
  • Either because insufficient CO2 was installed;
  • Or that the compartment doors/hatches were left open so no compartment integrity was achieved to starve the fire of oxygen;
  • Or that the CO2 leaked or discharged.

 (a) MSC Flaminia, 2012

In July 2012, the container ship was exposed to an uncontrollable fire which tragically lead to three fatalities and two severely injured crew members, as well as dire damage to the ship structure and its cargo. In this example, the actuation of the CO2 system failed when it actuated without instruction in the engine room, although the discharge was intended for cargo hold 4, which turned off the auxiliary boiler and auxiliary fan for the main engine. This led to an out of control fire which required three salvage tugs to deal with the effects of the explosions and fire. However, the extent of the fire meant that the salvage teams could not enter the vessel for 4 days. Cargo areas 3-7 in the ship were significantly damaged and the ships structure was weakened, requiring replacement. Under the pressures, the hatch covers lost their integrity and bulkheads were severely damaged which led to water ingress in all the cargo. The ruling from this event has stated that $280 million of liability will be shared as a result of the incident .

(b) Barzan, 2015

On September 2015, a fire was detected inside one of the cargo holds of Barzan, a Maltese registered container ship. The fixed CO2 system was used but due to a number of leaks in the CO2 line, the required amount of gas did not reach the cargo hold to be effective to smother the fire. The starboard fire main line then developed a large leak at a joint in the under deck passage way and had to be isolated. This restricted the fire-fighting efforts to only the port side, and rendered the starboard side water drenching system unusable. The safety investigation concluded that although the CO2 system and fire mains had been tested satisfactorily prior to the vessel’s delivery in May 2015, the quality of the workmanship had contributed to the subsequent failure of both systems .

(c) CCNI Arauco, 2016

A major fire broke out in an after hold of the container ship CCNI Arauco at Hamburg’s Burchardkai terminal in September 2016. A fire department spokesman said that over 100 emergency services personnel, four fire engines and two fire boats were on site to fight the blaze on the day of the incident. Early efforts focused on cooling the hull to prevent structural damage. An initial attempt to smother the fire with CO2 was not effective, and firefighting operations continued through night. The depth of the fire’s location within the hold added complexity to the response. Repeated CO2 discharges from the ship's own fixed firefighting system were not sufficient to halt the blaze in the Arauco's hold, and a major shore-based intervention was required instead . 

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