IUMI’s growing concern over containership fires

By Captain Uwe-Peter Schieder, Vice Chairman of IUMI's Loss Prevention Committee, and Loss Prevention Manager, GDV

Major fires on container vessels count among the worst hazards in global shipping. In 2016 alone, there have been three major fires; Maersk Karachi (May 2016), NNCI Arauco (September 2016) and most recently Wan Hai 307 (September 2016). All three ships required external help to extinguish the fires, despite two being in the harbour and the third anchored just off Hong Kong, fuelling IUMI’s concerns over the challenges involved with managing these incidents at sea.

Containerships have changed quite drastically over the past few years, far more than the size and arrangement of bulkers and tankers. Containerships have become larger and may now have six, seven, and sometimes even 11 layers of containers on deck making it far harder to contain a fire once ignited.

Firefighting procedures are different in bulkers as CO2 can be used to fight a fire and the CO2 can have direct contact with the cargo. This cannot happen with containers. Furthermore, containers will contain oxygen which can make fire-fighting even more challenging.

The cargo also plays a role in a fire. Cargoes in a bulker or a tanker are well defined but with containerships there is always a risk of misdeclared cargo which could be dangerous or hazardous. This could further fuel the fire and endanger the lives of the crew.

Currently, firefighting operations on container vessels are limited to allowing the containers to burn out in a controlled manner in such a way that the fire cannot spread further. This approach is still correct and reasonable but, in view of the rapid pace of development towards ever-larger ships, new technical solutions are also required.

IUMI is well aware of the SOLAS regulations but is calling for further dialogue involving the IMO, classification societies, shipbuilders and shipping companies to further improve firefighting capabilities onboard containerships. IUMI’s Loss Prevention Committee is currently preparing a paper (due to be published soon), which identifies potential sustainable solutions to protect lives at sea.