Engine room fires are often very challenging to deal with, due to the construction of the room and a plentiful supply of the fire triangle elements: heat, fuel and oxygen. A major engine room fire can have destructive consequences and, in the aftermath, it’s unlikely for a ship to continue under her own power.
Sources of ignition
The following heat sources are most likely to start a fire in the engine room:
- hot exhaust pipe
- engine surfaces
- bearings of rotating machinery heating up
- defunct electrical equipment.
Heat sources can also be introduced by human error; for instance by dangerous use of electric tools and welding equipment. Insulation of exhaust pipes is often found to be defective, especially in the vicinity of the diesel engines, where removal of insulation is needed during engine maintenance. Also, flange connections and steel supports of exhaust pipes may often be inadequately insulated, as well as indicators and other instruments fitted. SOLAS Ch II-2 Regulation 4 para 2.2.6 instructs that surfaces with temperatures above 220°C should be properly insulated and that precautions should be taken to prevent any oil leakage coming into contact with heated surfaces.
According to reports, up to 70% of all engine room fires appear to have started out by fuel leaks. It is important to have good maintenance systems in order to reduce the risk of oil leaks. For example, an oil leak detection and alarm equipment which is able to detect and warn of a possible oil leak in concealed areas. In case of oil leakages in fuel or other flammable system, instant actions of permanent nature should be effected. Under no circumstances should temporary repairs to oil containing pipes be permitted.
Electrical installations will always represent a certain risk of sparks and fire, although the risk is reduced by the use of quality safety devices and close adherence to valid regulations. When a vessel is delivered from the newbuilding yard, the electrical installation is normally in good condition, well tested by competent personnel. Thereafter the authorities’ control of electrical installation on board a ship is very lax. At the same time, with the continuous reduction of the crew number on board, the position of electrician has disappeared.
One of the reasons for the engine room casing and various decks, bulkheads and staircases being made of steel is to limit a spread of fire. If there is a fire in the engine room, it is important that the fire may not readily spread to accommodation, bridge, lifeboat stations and cargo areas. Likewise, a fire in the cargo areas should not be able to gain access to the engine room, which is “the heart of the ship”, where generators and fire pumps, the means to fight a fire, are located.
Getting ready for engine room fires
Ship’s personnel should be well prepared for a fire situation. For this to happen, it is essential that realistic fire drills are carried out frequently.
The standard equipment used for fighting a fire in the engine room of a ship is:
- hand-held fire extinguishers
- a large capacity extinguisher
- fire pumps and fire hoses
- the fixed fire extinguishing system.
In some cases, ship operators hire specialist fire training companies to provide advanced training onboard their ships.
Particular attention should be given to the cleanliness of the engine room:
- High standards of cleanliness should be kept at all time as they are crucial for fire prevention.
- No oils or oily rags should be allowed close to heat sources, such as boilers and the main engine’s exhaust system.
- In some ships there is a large collection of used spare parts and items which are “nice to have”, such as plastic sheets, wooden planks, used paint tins, etc., being stored in fire prone areas.
- All combustible materials should be discarded, along with any outdated equipment that may hinder access in a fire situation.
- Tank tops and bilges should be cleaned and hosed down frequently.
All the above indicate that a clean engine room represents a smaller fire hazard than a dirty one.
Special focus should be paid to possible fire risks while repairs are carried out or directly afterwards. No hot work in the engine room should initiate, without having the potential risks identified and all the necessary hot work precautions taken. Oftentimes after maintenance work, the available time to get the ship back to operation can be insufficient, and the refitting of removed insulation is often left to be completed by the crew during the voyage.
Ensuring proper maintenance and inspection
Proper maintenance and inspection of the engine room is a key element in avoiding a serious and possibly life-threatening event. The officers and crew should have their continual attention and check frequently that:
- there is no leakage of oil in the engine room
- all repairs carried out to oil pipes are permanent
- the quick closing valves and fire dampers are in good condition and properly functioning
- the engine alarm system is fully properly maintained and operable
- the fixed firefighting installations are properly maintained and armed
- all combustible materials are stored only in designated areas
- all connections in electrical installations are in good condition
- the automatic closing mechanisms on all fire doors within and at the boundaries of the engine room are working correctly
- the insulation covering hot surfaces is in good condition
- escape routes are clearly marked by using deck plate arrows and that exit doors are visible
Fire is a constant risk at sea and one of the worst things to happen in your sea carrier. Severe fires have emerged because of failure to identify potential fire hazards. It is widely accepted that the best fire prevention is a well-trained crew, which comprehends all these potential hazards and their consequences. In many cases, the general attitude and awareness of the crew, may be the tipping point.