In 2017, Loss Prevention Director, North of England P&I Club Colin Gillespie said: “We continue to see fires developing on ro-ro vessels that can quickly get out of control, putting lives at risk as well as causing significant damage to the vessel and cargo.” After two years we keep on asking….


The bigger the ships the bigger the risk

Taking into consideration the new age ships - ever-larger container ships in size with capacity increased by almost 1,500% in 50 years - it is of utmost importance to find ways to prevent hazardous cargo fires which often lead to loss of life, material damage, and serious environmental impact. Certainly, the risk is increasing together with the size of the oceangoing ships which allows more containers and other cargo onboard. Τake for instance, the ultra large container ship “Maersk Honam” fire on 6 March 2018 while sailing in the Arabian Sea. The aftermath? Five members of the crew were killed, including one rescued crew member who died later from injuries.


To recap

So far, 2019 has produced a significant number of hazardous cargo fires onboard with the most reported being as follows.

  • On 31 December 2018, the vehicle carrierSincerity Ace suffered a serious fire in the Pacific, costing the lives of five seafarers and destroying 3,600 cars.
  • On 3 January 2019, the containershipYantian Express sustained major fire off Bermuda. 198 containers onboard the 'Yantian Express' were estimated to be a total loss.
  • One 8 January 2019, one man was killed and two others declared missing after the oil/ chemical tanker Aulac Fortune caught fire while it was being refueled off Hong Kong
  • On 29 January 2019, fire broke out in the engine room onboard Maersk’s Panamax containership “Olga Maersk on route from Panama to Cartagena.
  • On 31 January 2019, Vietnamese Coast Guard responded to a cargo fire on the container ship “APL Vancouver off Vung Ro, Vietnam.
  • On 10 March 2019, Italian con/roGrande Americacaught fire, approximately 140 nm off Finistère, forcing all 27 members of her crew to abandon ship; it sank after two days.


Misidentified and undeclared dangerous goods

As said by TT Club, approximately two out of three fire incidents are the result of poor practice in the overall packing process of dangerous goods, which are often misidentified or undeclared. Sadly, that is a horrifying number which proves that fire safety is not top priority for many leading shipping companies worldwide which not only circumvent the maritime law of dangerous-goods but also jeopardize their ships’ and crew’s safety, the marine environment and their companies ‘profits as well.

Of course, the work done by TT Club, together with UK P&I Club and Exis Technologies, the Hazcheck Restrictions Portal, to identify and streamline the complexity of regulations and protocols imposed by carriers and ports around the world in relation to transporting declared dangerous goods is more than remarkable; pinpointing the urgent need for all involved in the supply chain to a responsible attitude towards liability and understand the importance of the risks.


Actions to be taken

Apparently, cargo spaces are not the only locations where a vessel fire starts. The most common fires onboard occur in engine room and, above all,  they are caused by oil leakages, boiler incidents, electrical failures or accidents during hot work operations due to lack of proper maintenance and poor watchkeeping.

With IMO's Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment focusing on fire safety on ro-ro vessels among other issues in order to minimize the danger and the accidents caused by fire, it is the time we understand how important is to take a better look in fire safety precautions that P&I Clubs for years now have been emphasizing from a saving humans lives’ point of view:

  1. The attention should be shifted in prevention and ignition, including inspection and maintenance plans.
  2. Crew members should be given the education and training in firefighting and fire prevention, focusing on understanding the risk of fire onboard and how to minimize those risks, learning how to fight and extinguish fires as well as search for and recover casualties and learning how to wear firefighting equipment including personal breathing apparatus and safe use of fire-fighting equipment (fixed and portable).
  3. Crew members should be aware where deck boundaries are and where fire zones extend too.
  4. Crew members should be vigilant during loading operations and routine rounds of cargo spaces.
  5. Realistic proper fire drills under SOLAS and based on previous incidents experienced should be held regularly, with revolving scenarios of team roles.
  6. All fire-fighting and ventilation systems should be checked regularly to ensure their efficient operation.
  7. Drencher systems should be tested and system pipes and heads following any tests should be cleaned.
  8. Crew members should be ready to react swiftly to any suspicious oil leaks and/or burning smells.


Industry 4.0 and fire safety

To conclude, in the age of the Internet of things, where an ever-increasing number of devices and products are communicating with one another via Internet technology, technology related to fire safety onboard is expected to be fitted with more sensors and communication technology. Special software is often used in evacuation simulations (people flow analyses), fire simulations and smoke simulations often require lots of computing power. Moreover, maintenance is going to be done anytime or anywhere through network technology in order to identify faults and make required modifications. However, the complicated nature of preventive fire protection requires well-trained personnel at all levels!

About Apostolos Belokas

Apostolos is a Maritime Safety, Quality & Environmental Expert, Consultant, Trainer and Project Manager with more than a 20-year background in shipping as Technical, Marine, Safety & Training Superintendent and Consultant. He entered the industry back in early 90’s as Engineering Superintendent with a leading ship manager operating a mixed fleet of bulk and oil/chemical tankers. He then shifted to regulatory compliance and QHSE as superintendent and later as a Consultant and Trainer. Apostolos has successfully completed a wide range of QHSE projects including 250+ management system projects (ISM/ISO 9001-14001-18001/TMSA/MLC), 500 vessel and office audits to various standards and he has trained more than 8,000 people in a wide variety of QHSE subjects. He has also presented and chaired to more than 40 conferences. He holds Mechanical Engineering Bachelor and Master’s specialising in Energy & Environment and Master’s Degree in Maritime Business and Business Administration (MBA), all of them awarded with distinction. Apostolos is the Managing Director of SQE MARINE, SQE ACADEMY and Managing Editor of SAFETY4SEA.