Call for Better Fire-Fighting Systems on Container Ships

MSC Flaminia fire
MSC Flaminia fire

Published Sep 19, 2017 7:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Union of Marine Insurance has called for better fire-fighting systems on board container ships, citing its concern that current provisions are insufficient given the growing size of container vessels and a recent spate of fires on board ships.   

Recent examples of fires include those on NNCI Arauco (9,000 TEU) in September 2016 during welding operations whilst alongside in Hamburg, Hanjin Pennsylvania (4,000 TEU) in November 2002 claiming the lives of two crew members and resulting in a constructive total loss; and MSC Flaminia (6,732TEU) in July 2012, resulting in three fatalities and also a constructive total loss.    

In remote locations and on the open sea, it can often be hours or even days after a fire has broken out before external assistance arrives. As a rule, only seagoing tugs carry the necessary equipment for effective firefighting. Until they arrive, the crew has to rely on its own resources, and the fire can spread extensively. As a result, as with the MSC Flaminia, it can take weeks to bring the fire under control.

Whilst IUMI expressly welcomes the 2014 amendment to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to increase the effectiveness of firefighting, the association believes more should be done.  

Helle Hammer, IUMI Political Forum Chair, said: "Recent amendments to SOLAS are a move in the right direction but they do not go far enough. The legal requirements prescribed by SOLAS were originally developed for fires on board general cargo vessels, and these ships are structurally very different to a container vessel, and cargo is stored differently. We believe the mode of fire-fighting set out in SOLAS is not suitable for a modern container ship."

On general cargo vessels, the cargo is stored openly in the holds, and when fire breaks out, the air space within the hold immediately fills with smoke making a fire easy to detect. Once a fire is detected, the hold in question can be sealed off and CO2 can be used directly on the fire.

The fire detection systems specified in SOLAS do not enable effective detection of incipient fires in a container, says IUMI. To discover a fire, air from the hold, more or less directly below the deck, is usually extracted and passed in front of a photoelectric cell on the bridge. If the air contains smoke particles, the contact between the photoelectric cell and the opposite light source is interrupted and an alarm is triggered. For this to happen, however, the hold must already be full of smoke up to the level of the hatch cover. On a container vessel, the fire will already have spread by this point.

The effectiveness of spraying CO2 into the hatch is also doubtful for two reasons: First, with a closed container the CO2 cannot act directly on the burning cargo as it will not penetrate through the container wall. Secondly, if the oxygen content of the container or the cargo is high, the CO2 will be completely ineffective.

If the fire develops further, it is inevitable that it will spread to the deck. In contrast to a general cargo vessel, fire spreading to the deck load on a container vessel will have even more catastrophic consequences. With the exception of the superstructure, there are no natural fire compartments on deck. Due to a lack of suitable equipment, it is practically impossible to cool the deck by using water.

In addition, the detection of a fire on deck is left to chance, says IUMI. SOLAS does not stipulate that fire detectors must be fitted on deck. A fire is only discovered if a perceptible amount of smoke is produced, the fire results in sounds that drown out the ordinary noises of the ship, or if flame is discernible.

IUMI supports as best practice a proposal presented by the German Insurance Association GDV. Uwe-Peter Schieder, Marine and Loss Prevention, GDV, explains: "We suggest creating individual fire compartments below deck to prevent fire from spreading. These compartments would be fitted with fixed CO2 and water-based firefighting systems. Boundary structures would also be fitted above deck to align with the water-cooled bulkheads below and also fitted with fixed fire-fighting systems. In addition, we also recommend the installation of enhanced fire detection systems."

The water-based firefighting systems should be suitable for cooling the vessel's structure including the hold walls, the bulkheads, the tank deck, the hatch covers, the deck and the cargo. Only this additional cooling will prevent the negative thermal influence of the fire on the structure of the vessel and thus avoid the fire spreading to other fire compartments, says GDV. The water supply should have ample capacity in order to be able to supply at least three fire compartments simultaneously. This enables firefighting even in the event of a fire spreading from one fire compartment to adjacent neighboring ones. 

To provide a degree of redundancy, the water-based firefighting system must be able to operate entirely independently of the CO2 firefighting system. If it is not possible to ensure that the vessel has sufficient damage stability for every load situation, either the bilge pump system must be powerful enough and also have to be designed so there is clear, unrestricted flow of water out of the hold to safely cope with the water being used to fight the fire, or a water-saving firefighting system, e.g. fine water mist, must be used. In the latter case, the hatch cover could be flushed through with water as a "tank" in order to dissipate the heat. The "wastewater" would run off above deck. 

Nevertheless, firefighting with water is preferable, says GDV. Past experience has shown that hatch fires can only be extinguished if the respective section is flooded with water.

GDV says, all the ship's superstructures must be protected fore and aft against the effects of flames and heat by effective water curtains. The superstructures form a fire compartment boundary and provide a refuge for the crew. They also house the technical equipment for operating both the ship and the firefighting systems. 

In order to be able to attack or cool fires from a safe distance with large quantities of water, monitors must be installed on the fore and aft sides of the superstructures as on all the other fire compartment boundary structures. Lifesaving equipment such as lifeboats and life rafts must also be protected by their own water curtains that can be activated on demand.

In February this year, the IUMI called for action on ferry and roro fires.