Engine Room Fires Are Never Merry

engine room fire

Published Dec 6, 2016 4:30 PM by Captain Richard Madden

Engine room fires account for up to 50 percent of all fires on vessels with 70 percent of those engine room fires being caused by leaks from pressurized systems. Just this week, the chemical tanker Jo Kiri was inbound for a terminal in the Houston area when smoke was reported in the engine room. The Houston ship channel was blocked for about an hour before the vessel was moved to a berth. 

That engine room fires are so prevalent should come as no surprise as engine rooms contain all sides of the fire triangle in abundance - namely, the fuel and lubricants, the air containing oxygen that is being forced into the engine room in great quantities to supply the engines and of course the heat that is associated with engine rooms and machinery.

It's when these sides of the fire triangle are allowed to interact, such as the fuel leak on the dredge Arco Avon that came in contact with sparks from a grinding wheel in August 2015 that bad things happen. Bad things such as fire, that is! This was additionally seen on Gunde Maersk in December 2015 when a leaking o-ring sprayed pressurized fuel onto a hot exhaust manifold.  

Remember, the three sides of the fire triangle can coexist, as long as one side is adequately segregated from the others.

“Anticipate that there may be many technical challenges for operators when beginning to use ultra-low sulfur fuel oil as a matter of routine and compliance. These range from excessive leakages of fuel system components...” - USCG MSA 13-15

Along with the myriad of other reasons why a leak might develop in engine room piping systems, we add the challenges of using ultra-low sulfur fuel. Required in emissions control areas around the world, ultra-low sulfur fuels have been implicated in a lack of main engine power, as well as an increased frequency of fuel system leaks. Gunde Maersk is a prime example of these issues, having developed leaks on all three auxiliary engines shortly after switching from heavy foil oil to ultra-low sulfur marine gas oil.

Engine room maintenance introduces its own risk factors for fire. Gunde Maersk changed o-rings to combat fuel system leaks when switching to marine gas oil. Unfortunately, the fittings weren't properly torqued, nor tested at operating pressures. The resultant failure under operational loads was cited as the cause of the fire.  

On Arco Avon, the duty engineer was in the process of attempting a solo repair on a low-pressure fuel return line. A pipe hanger had worn its way through the fuel piping - a not unusual occurrence. While gaining access to the leak by using an abrasive cutting wheel to cut the pipe hanger, the duty engineer introduced all three sides of the fire triangle with the expected consequences. The resultant fire killed the duty engineer and caused extensive damage to the vessel.

On An Tai Jiang, there were numerous engine room deficiencies that played a role in the extent of the fire, but it was the malfunctioning crank case oil mist detector that allowed the internal engine explosion that became a major engine room fire. Again, there were many factors coming into play, but at the end of the day, three crew members lost their lives and the vessel had its own near-fatal wounds. Proper maintenance of remote sensors would have gone a long way towards preventing this tragedy.

Engine room maintenance and repairs have their own procedures and risk mitigation strategies. Whether it is the hot work permit that is required to notify all crew of what is going on, the review of equipment manuals to identify correct maintenance procedures or calling supervisors to report issues, the safety management system onboard a vessel will likely guide you in the right direction. These policies and procedures are there for the safety of all - crew, vessel and company.

When a vessel or company doesn't have issues or casualties, such as an engine room fire, for a period of time, the perceived risks of having such a fire are sometimes minimized. Crew members might find themselves thinking that only lower tier operators have catastrophic incidents, whereas in reality, they can occur to the best of operators in the most unexpected ways. Think back to that fire triangle and how closely the elements coexist in the engine room. It can take the smallest fault - a leaky o-ring, some missing lagging, a failed sensor - and all of a sudden all the pieces of a disaster are present. If we take care of some of the smaller issues (see below), the big ones might well take care of themselves.

There are some key items to check and things to do to assist you in preventing engine room fires and/or limiting their severity:

1. Housekeeping in the engine room is critical. Keeping debris from building up in the corners of the main space or machinery flats eliminates potential fuel.  

2. Identification and elimination of oil leaks. An oil leak is a risk and like all risks, once identified, mitigation strategies should be put in place. Whether it is a slow drip or a pressurized spray, the accumulation of flammable material (i.e. fuel) can only increase the risk of fire. In other words, if you are aware of it, take care of it!

3. Check the lagging and insulation on and around machinery installations. If it is missing, damaged or oil-soaked, the time to take care of it is now! Keeping the fuel away from the heat will make fires less likely.

4. Properly maintain and use fire screen doors. Quite frequently, fire screen doors are tied open to allow easy passage during daily duties. Unfortunately, they are also frequently left that way day after day. Even tying them open for a short period of time should be avoided, as fires can happen at the most inopportune time - such as when the fire screen door is tied open.

5. Check your quick closing valves on lubricating and fuel oil storage tanks and the self-closing valves on gauge/sight glasses. Too often, these valves haven't been exercised and won't close or they have been tied or wedged open. Whether ignited or not, quantities of oil released into the engine room is less than desirable. And that's not even taking into consideration the port state control/inspection aspects....

6. When operations, personnel or fuel changes, consider the possible repercussions. Simply changing to low sulfur fuels when entering an emissions control area might be a time for increased vigilance while making rounds.

7. Properly maintain engine machinery. If lubrication oils are contaminated or critical sensors (heat, fire and oil mist detector) are inoperable, ensure the deficiency is corrected. When making repairs, ensure proper procedures are adhered to in installing, tightening and testing critical systems.

8. Read the accident reports and guidance below. Share them with your crew. It's better to learn from someone else's mistakes than to make them yourself.

Let's be safe out there!

Additional Reading and Links

U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Alert 04-15: Engine Room Operations

U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Alert 13-15: Ultra Low Sulfur Fuel Oil and Compliance with MARPOL Requirements


Risk Focus : Engine Room Fires - UK P&I Club

Technical Bulletin 39/2012 : Escape from engine rooms - UK P&I Club

Technical Bulletin 25/2007 : Steering gear compartment fire doors - UK P&I Club

Technical Bulletin 36/2011 : Quick Closing and Self Closing Valves - UK P&I Club

NTSB - Gunde Maersk Engine Room Fire - December 2015

MAIB - Arco Avon Engine Room Fire - August 2015

MAISSPB (Hong Kong) - An Tai Jiang Engine Room Fire - January 2009

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.