Gard conference invites container fires experts to join forces

By Helle Hammer, Managing Director of Cefor and Chair of the IUMI Policy Forum

Key stakeholders from across the industry met at Gard’s headquarters in Arendal, Norway, on 17-18 October to discuss prevention and mitigation of cargo fires on container vessels. Following a recent and alarming escalation of such fires, the conference was a timely gathering of industry stakeholders, authorities and fire experts to discuss (amongst other issues) the long overdue amendment of inadequate regulations.

Holistic approach

With increasing containerisation, larger vessels, and new innovations in fire detection and extinguishing equipment, regulation is clearly struggling to keep up with developments. By focusing on mis-declaration of cargo, many of these severe fires would not have occurred. The conference generally agreed there is no quick-fix single solution to this challenge, though several initiatives are already underway in the industry and at the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Avoiding mis-declaration and engaging with the shippers and regulators to discuss preventive measures on non- and mis-declaration were high on the agenda, but the sad reality is that fires are still likely to occur. To better prepare for such incidents a more holistic approach is needed. This was expertly demonstrated through a number of interesting presentations addressing the root causes of container vessel fires, the supply chain, fire detection and firefighting on board, new innovations in firefighting equipment and not least the need for an amendment to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations.

Zooming in on SOLAS

In 2017, IUMI published a position paper in which stakeholders were invited to take part in further discussions on new regulations. The Gard conference became an important venue for this discussion, and IUMI was well represented with the six participants seen in the picture. (From left to right: Kristin Urdahl (Loss Prevention Committee), Helle Hammer (Policy Forum), Sean Dalton (Cargo Committee), Jan-Hugo Marthinsen (Executive Committee), Hendrike Kühl (IUMI Policy Director), Uwe-Peter Schieder (Loss Prevention Committee)).

On the opening day, Uwe-Peter Schieder, Vice Chair of the IUMI Loss Prevention Committee, outlined the shortcomings of the current fire detection and firefighting regime. With a number of casualties, some with the tragic loss of lives, insurers have seen some very costly claims from damaged cargo, vessels and disruption of trade. This was further emphasised by speakers from Gard, including Are Solum who set the stage with his opening address and Alf Martin Sandberg who expertly moderated the well-attended conference.

During the looking ahead session, Helle Hammer, Chair of the IUMI Policy Forum, presented together with Nicki Boldt of the German Flag State Administration a proposed submission for a new output at the IMO. IUMI will be co-sponsoring the German proposal for a review of SOLAS Chapter II-2 regarding fire protection in the cargo area on and below deck. An invitation was extended to other flag states present, along with industry associations, to take part. The draft submission paper is now being circulated to relevant parties, and the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) is assisting with a technical review of the documents.

Finally, to support the work towards an amendment of SOLAS, IUMI took the opportunity to invite conference attendees to volunteer for an Expert Group on container vessels fires. A number of nominations have been received and the group is about to be formed.

While the development of IMO regulations is indeed a lengthy process, the conference in Arendal did mark an important opportunity to join forces across the industry towards a common goal: preventing and mitigating devastating fires aboard container vessels. IUMI’s Policy Forum remains dedicated to take a lead on this urgent matter.