Latest Safety and Shipping Review report by Allianz highlighted once again that fires onboard remain a burning issue. With over 70 reported fires on container ships alone in the past five years and the recent X-Press Pearl incident, it is evident that cargo fires are a priority concern.
ires often start in containers, which can be the result of non-/mis-declaration of hazardous cargo, such as chemicals and batteries. Fires on large vessels can spread quickly and be difficult to control, often resulting in the crew abandoning ship, which can significantly increase the final cost of an incident. Losses can be expensive, given the value of the cargo and the cost of wreck removal and pollution mitigation. Specialist salvage equipment, tugs, cranes, barges and port infrastructure are also required, which add time and cost to a response.
Industry has raised great awareness on fire safety, either through PSC inspections or during the design, construction and operation of ships. However, the overall frequency of ship fires has not seen any significant improvement since every year several accidents due to fire, lead to loss of lives and severe damage to ships.
A fire is one of the most frightening things that can happen at sea, while many times seafarers have no easy access to the emergency services when a fire occurs. Due to the complexity of fire and the uncertainties involved, if the fire on board cannot be extinguished, it may lead to a disaster, total actual loss and serious casualties. According to Cefor’s Annual Report 2021, the frequency of most types of casualties are showing a downward trend, except for fires.
Furthermore, latest US Coast Guard’s PSC Annual Report identified once again several detainable deficiencies due to inadequate fire safety systems and arrangements on board pointing the direction to enhanced fire prevention measures. Fires on board ships can be prevented by finding and rectifying leakages of fuel oil, lubricating oil, and exhaust gases.
Types of fire
Fire requires the presence of three items: fuel, heat and oxygen. The standard method of classifying fires is by the type of fuel which is burning;
- Class A: Fires involving solid materials usually of an organic nature, e.g. wood, paper, cardboard, fabrics, bedding etc
- Class B: Fires involving liquids or liquefiable solids, e.g. diesel, lub oils, cooking oils and fats etc.
- Class C: Fires involving flammable gases, e.g. acetylene, gas cargoes etc
- Class D: Fires involving metals. These are very rare but may be experienced in boilers and funnel uptakes and due to high temperatures may result in explosions.
- Class K: Fires involving combustion from liquids used in food preparation. Greases, cooking oils, vegetable fat, and animal fat are all fuel sources found in these fires.
Identifying key fire risks onboard
Although cargo related fires on board container vessels and car/Ro-Ro vessels have been a frequent topic of discussion in the industry in recent years, the majority of fires on board ships still originate in the engine room. In addition, a number of recent fire related claims have been attributed to electrical failures within the crew’s cabins.
#1 Leakage in high pressure pipes: If the leaking oil perchance falls on an indicator cock or exhaust manifold, there is a chance of spontaneous combustion, which can quickly spread through the entire generator and engine room.
#2 Electrical failure or overload: Fires can start due to purely technical reasons like overloading of switches, use of open or loose wires, battery failures, overheated appliances, unattended circuits that can lead to a spark, etc.
#3 Damage during maintenance operations: Maintenance operations of the ship often include a spot of welding or gas cutting, which have a high-risk potential of starting a fire.
#4 Human fault: Human fault is one of the most common reasons of fires aboard ships, despite the fact that all seafaring personnel are trained extensively before the actual voyage. Smoking cigarettes while lying on the bed, unattended appliances during ironing, cooking, charging, are some of the ways in which careless human behavior can result in fires.