Speaking volumes – protecting against fires offshore

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Leakage of fire suppression agents from firefighting systems remains an ongoing, complex problem, and one that is often incorrectly attributed to system failure. OMT speaks to Coltraco Ultrasonics about the extent of such incidents and the solutions developed by Coltraco to combat undetected leakage

The offshore sector may still be mired in recession at present, but the need to retain a vigilant eye on fire safety remains as vital as ever.

To some degree, offshore oil and gas companies are still haunted by the blaze and explosion that destroyed the Piper Alpha oil production platform in July 1988, causing the deaths of more than 160 personnel aboard the structure – a tragedy that resulted in some much-welcomed ‘toughening up’ of offshore safety requirements.

All the same, fire-related incidents still occur aboard many offshore assets, putting the burden on owners and operators to ensure that safety standards do not slip. This burden becomes more onerous when one considers that the majority of offshore companies are scaling back their budgets at present, as well as warm-stacking and cold-stacking some of their most valuable vessels and rigs.

However, companies have a duty to ensure the protection of personnel, as well as a natural incentive to safeguard some of the most expensive assets to be stationed at sea – as well as their own reputations – and fire safety is a factor that simply cannot be neglected. This is not purely a problem for the offshore sector: a study conducted by the Finnish Transport Safety Agency has revealed that, between 2004 and 2010, 800 fires were logged in European waters, approximately 10% of which were classed as ‘serious’ and 25% of which required external assistance to successfully extinguish.

Tailor-made installations

Dr Carl Hunter, chief executive and managing director of UK-based ultrasonic technology solution developer Coltraco Ultrasonics, tells Offshore Marine Technology: “Part of this issue is to do with the maintenance of gaseous fire extinguishing installations. Typically, an offshore rig or platform will be equipped with a number of these installations, a typical 45Kg C02 cylinder measures 1800mm in height and 250mm in width. The number will be determined between the asset owner and the contracted firefighting system provider, and be tailored to the specific vessel area.”

As such, the fire extinguishing installation may either contain CO₂ – which, as an oxygen-suppressing substance, is suited to unmanned areas aboard the vessel/platform, including machinery spaces – or FM ™200 or Novec ™ 1230, which are preferred, non-toxic and environmentally friendly choices for the wheelhouse, crew quarters and mess.

Equally as important, Hunter continues, this tailored arrangement will see the firefighting system provider determine the correct amount of extinguishing agent for each area. “the design concentration itself will have up to 20% excess applied to the overall installation,” he explains. So, if it is calculated that it will require 100kg of agent to successfully suppress a fire in a particular vessel area, the system provider might allocate three 50kg cylinders to cover this location.

Agent leakage

With this in mind, it is therefore quite shocking when Hunter recounts: “Anywhere between one-in-ten to one-in-five cylinders, when inspected, have been found to be partially or fully empty.” He adds: “We hear about onboard fires and vessels reporting that the extinguishing installations ‘failed’ to put out the blaze – but failure would have been impossible had these installations been checked to ensure they were full.”

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for gaseous extinguishing agent to leak from these cylinders. “This is to be expected when such firefighting equipment is stored on land, let alone aboard a vessel for 365 days a year,” says Hunter. In an offshore environment, fluctuations in temperature (especially if an offshore asset is transferred between climes as disparate as those of the North Sea and offshore Brazil, for example) and structural stress can acerbate damage of the cylinders’ seals and cause accidental discharge of the extinguishing agent.

“Gaseous extinguishing systems are highly pressurised,” Hunter adds. “The risk of leaking and discharging is accepted as part of their use in the regulations that demand their upkeep.”

The result? A depleted cylinder, containing only half of its allocated agent, runs out of the substance before the fire is properly suppressed. Subsequently, the fire rages on, destroys the area and possibly spreads to other sections of the vessel – or even produces an explosion. Later, in the post-incident analysis, the cylinder is incorrectly judged as to have ‘failed’.

Crew qualifications

The regulations mentioned by Hunter include ISO 14520-1:2015, which specifies: “If a container shows a loss of agent quantity or a loss of pressure (adjusted for temperature) of more than 5%, it shall be refilled or replaced.” Even a loss of 5% can be sufficient to ensure that the cylinder does not play its full role in quelling the fire.

In addition, IMO’s International Code for Fire Safety Systems (FSS Code) – and, in particular Chapter 5, section, which focuses on checks for fixed installations such as these cylinders – states: “Means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire-extinguishing medium in the containers.”

This latter requirement throws up several questions. The wording of that particular section has a worrying vague ring to it. Hunter clarifies: “This code specifically states that the crew must test its 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 its own fire protection.”

However, the next question should be: is the crew necessarily trained or qualified to conduct such checks? As Hunter puts it, most seafarers undertake adequate drilling training when it comes to fire response, but not so many are actually instructed in how to correctly calculate the volume of agent in each cylinder. This can be a complex and time-consuming process, involving shutting down each cylinder and dismantling it, weighing it to ascertain the amount of extinguishing agent, and then assembling and reinstalling it again.

Hunter estimates that this process usually takes a minimum of 15 minutes, and requires input from two able-bodied persons, per cylinder. Taking this as baseline, consider a platform or floatel equipped with anywhere from 200 to 600 such cylinders: properly dismantling, weighing and reassembling each one constitutes a prolonged and unenviable task. It is a task that needs to be done, as Hunter highlights: “When a ship is at sea, it must be its own fire service,” he says. Unfortunately, though, the tedious and repetitive nature of this work can lead to far bigger problems, such as corner-cutting, rushed and inadequate checks and even deliberately fraudulent reporting.

“It’s not so much the major players – the BPs or Shells – that give cause for concern: it’s some of the smaller operators who are more likely to skimp on safety checks,” Hunter warns. Given the complex and specialist nature of these firefighting systems, and of gaseous detection in general, it can be difficult to know what to look for when assessing the validity of safety reports. This can be a particular hurdle for new surveyors or port inspectors, he adds, and particularly for those who have, to date, spent more of their time in the office or classroom than at sea.
“We’ve heard of surveyors, straight out of college and unused to maritime culture, boarding vessels where crew members have thrown down a bathroom scale next to the firefighting cylinders, to try to convince them that they are conducting regular safety checks,” Hunter says. In some cases, crew members have even intimidated inexperienced or nervous surveyors and inspectors into backing down and giving their seal of approval: in other parts of the world, corruption can be sufficient to get the right boxes ticked.

Handheld solution

For its part, Coltraco Ultrasonics has developed a range of patented solutions to speed up the cylinder-checking process without compromising on safety standards. The company manufactures two particular tools specifically for this purpose: the PortalevelÒ MAX Marine and the PortasteeleÒ Calculator application. Used in conjunction by a single person, Hunter claims, these two products can enable crew to identify a leaking cylinder (or one that has previously leaked agent) within as little as 30 seconds.

The first step is to place the Portalevel MAX Marine against the side of the cylinder. This 160mm (h) x 82mm (w) x 30mm (d) monitor pings an ultrasonic signal into the cylinder, which allows the user to “pinpoint the liquid level of suppressant agent”, Hunter says. This data can be logged and saved for future transfer to a PC or similar device, and is time-stamped for authenticity, so that operators/owners and crew can prove that they have carried out adequate checks in compliance with existing safety regulations.
In this way, the liquid level height has been obtained. However, it is not a given that the user will know how to convert this figure to determine the weight and mass of the extinguishing agent – nor that they will have the time to sit down and manually calculate hundreds of such readings.

The second step, then, is to feed the data captured by the Portalevel MAX Marine into the Portasteele® Calculator app. Hunter elaborates: “The app can be installed on a 5” or 7” tablet. The user inputs information related to: the extinguishing agent type [ie, CO2, Novec 1230, etc]; the cylinder dimensions; the temperature of the agent; and the liquid level height. The Portasteele® app then instantly provides the agent’s weight.” This process can also be conducted vice versa, inputting the suppressant agent’s mass/weight to generate a reading for liquid level height.

The ‘ungoverned space’

Of course, these solutions cost money, and there is no doubt that Coltraco Ultrasonics has products it wishes to sell. However, Hunter counters: “Some of the offshore platforms out there cost up to US$1-3 billion, before you consider annual maintenance and manning costs: why would any owner quibble about a solution that costs about US$1,000 and which can save them significant costs and time in the long term ? It’s akin to investing in a new house but deciding to not buy a fridge, in order to ‘save money’.”  There are also elements that money cannot replace – such as lost lives and a shattered reputation within the industry – should a rig or platform fail to contain a serious conflagration. Hunter comments: “Chances must not be taken when lives are at risk and when a vessel is at sea: this is all the time.”

Still, the message would appear to be spreading. Hunter estimates that Coltraco’s technology is present aboard “90% of all offshore platforms in the North Sea, 20% in the Gulf of Mexico and 30% across Asia,” and the company exports approximately 89% of its output, covering 109 countries, across 19 sectors (including maritime and naval, energy and power).

What does remain unknown at this stage is how the lay-up of myriad vessels, rigs and platforms in the past two to three years might have affected their onboard firefighting systems. As Hunter mentions, even during periods of lay-up, most responsible owners and operators will continue to carry out maintenance checks aboard these assets, with fire management system contractors presumably ensuring that any leaking cylinders are indeed refilled or replaced, as per ISO requirements.

However, we cannot assume this is the case for every company and every asset. Coltraco Ultrasonics has subsequently developed the concept of the ‘ungoverned space’ – described as being “an area where either the regulations of the protecting systems of the critical infrastructure are not effectively providing consistent and reliable safety.” We cannot know how many such ‘ungovernable spaces’ are out there – but, in the event of permanently shut-down or cold-stacked assets, there could be sufficient neglected areas to put the entire vessel or structure at risk.

Hopefully, when the offshore sector bounces back from its current doldrums, owners and operators will be well equipped to recommence operations as quickly as possible. Whatever solution they turn to, however, they would strongly be advised not to neglect their firefighting systems before they return to work: the consequences, otherwise, could prove disastrous.

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