Urgent action called for to curb containership fires

Insurers are calling for urgent action to be taken to reduce the instances of containership fires ahead of an IMO meeting of the Sub-Committee on Carriage of Cargoes and Containers in London.

The TT Club noted in a press release that shipboard container fires are breaking out on a weekly basis with major fires that present a threat to life and the vessel are happening every two months.

“Such incidents are costing seafarer lives, result in loss and damage to goods and ships running into hundreds of millions of dollars, impact the environment and are significantly disrupting supply chains serving markets throughout the world,” the TT CLUB said.

The chief culprit is the problem of misdeclared dangerous goods, which can only be dealt with by increased regulatory coordination and harmonisation. “As a step towards the goal of true cargo integrity, we are calling on the IMO to initiate a correspondence group to advise on the best means of achieving such unified guidelines,” said TT Club risk director Peregrine Storrs-Fox.

The TT Club insists that greater attention must be paid to the safe, secure and environmentally sound packing, handling and transport of all goods in containers.

“Achieving such cargo integrity across the complex web of the international freight supply chain is a big ask and we are in little doubt that a comprehensive result will take time to achieve,” said Mr Storrs-Fox.

“However many industry bodies are making significant strides, particularly in the areas of dangerous goods identification, declaration and handling as well as container weighing and packing,” he said.

“We are calling on the regulators, in this case the IMO, to assist in taking action to identify appropriate legislative and behavioural change that will improve safety and certainty of outcome,” said Mr Storrs-Fox.

Meanwhile, ahead of the South Africa meeting of the International Union of Marine Underwriters concern was expressed about the ability of containerships and their crew to deal with a fire onboard when it occurs.

“Once established, a fire can be virtually impossible to get under control. This is because of a combination of factors; restricted access to the cargo stow where many of the fires have started and the sheer size and scale of an ultra large container vessel (ULCV), together with inadequate crew training and equipment,” Said Nick Haslam, Group director, Shipping Services at LOC.

Currently the crew on a container vessel are only required to complete standard fire-fighting training and yet fires on a container ship involving hazardous chemicals can easily and quickly reach over 1000 degrees, which is hot enough to melt steel.

Most modern ULCVs rely on fixed CO2 as their main firefighting medium for the below deck cargoes, while all new vessels which are designed to carry five or more tiers of containers on or above the weather deck must also have two or more mobile water monitors.

MSC.1/circ 1472 provides guidance on the design performance testing and approval of mobile water monitors but the effectiveness of any mobile water monitor relies heavily on the ability of the vessel’s crew to deploy the equipment.

“But experience has shown that fixed CO2 systems which inject CO2 at the top of holds to cascade down and displace the oxygen from the seat of the fire, are often ineffective. Cargo fires are often below the CO2 injection level, and so the fire-fighting medium mixes with the hot gases and simply escapes through the hatches, while CO2 does not easily enter closed containers, warned Mr Haslam.

“However, some cargoes carried in the hold may be highly reactive and able to provide sufficient oxygen during a chemical reaction, negating the effectiveness of any CO2 introduced.

“Because this method is so unsatisfactory, salvors are more likely to direct large volumes of water onto the fire source, which then risks a primary hull structural failure.

“This issue really does need to be addressed as a priority by the industry’s P&I clubs, insurers and operators.  These industry representatives must work with the IMO to urge it to put in place better and more appropriate fire safety regulations as soon as practicable. Better planning, training and stricter requirements could make the difference between a total loss and a successful salvage operation and most importantly could save the lives of seafarers on these vessels,” Mr Haslam concluded.


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