The incident

A ro-ro ferry was on routine service; it was morning twilight and there were 38 cars and eight commercial vehicles onboard.

One of the lorry trailers had been embarked using a tug master unit, and was on the open, external, floodlit area of the car deck.

It was raining during the passage. A passenger reported to a crew member that he saw smoke emanating from a vehicle on the car deck.

This was reported to the bridge and the second officer went to investigate; very soon he discovered that the tug master unit was on fire.

Two members of the deck crew immediately started fighting the fire with portable extinguishers.

The master alerted the crew and passengers using the public address system and also called the coastguard by radio.

In the meantime, the second officer activated the fire monitors and a water jet was trained on the tug master unit.

A second team of crew using BA arrived on scene; however, at about the same time, the chief officer entered the tug master unit and confirmed fire had been extinguished.

When the ferry arrived in port, the local fire service attended to assess the situation.

There was extensive fire damage at the tug master unit internally; however, there was no damage to the vessel nor injuries.

Lessons learned

  1. Vehicle fires present a major hazard onboard ferries, and need every precaution to minimise the risk. Post-event analysis identified the cause of this fire was almost certainly an electrical short-circuit: The cab driver’s window was open, letting rainwater in; the key was in the ignition; and the battery isolator was not in use. This was not an appropriate condition for the cab, particularly on an open car deck in the rain. CCTV imagery also spotted the tug master’s headlights switched on prior to smoke. Since the accident, the ferry operator has instructed tug master drivers to electrically isolate their cabs when unoccupied. This precaution should be a consideration throughout the industry.
  2. Vehicle deck fires have the potential to spread rapidly. However, the crew’s reactions were quick and efficient, ensuring that the situation came under control and prevented fire from spreading. This case highlights the importance of conducting regular crew drills to test that procedures and safety equipment will work when a real emergency occurs.