Container vessels urgently need better regulation to enhance fire safety

By Nick Haslam, Group Director, Shipping Services, LOC, IUMI Professional Partner,

The current fire safety regulations on container vessels are woefully inadequate, as has been clearly demonstrated in recent events.

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.

On a container ship, relatively small quantities of hazardous chemicals packed in individual containers are perfectly compliant, with no additional fire or safety precautions required. However, if taken in their entirety, adding up all the container contents, the total quantity of that hazardous chemical could be a very significant volume indeed. And the same volume, if carried on a bulk tanker or similar would be covered by totally different and much stricter safety requirements. 

I have been involved in a series of recent operations on container ships and given the volatility of some of the cargoes in close proximity, it’s not surprising that a fire can escalate out of hand so quickly.  

The potential issues are compounded still further by the incorrect or misdeclaration of cargoes, it is difficult enough dealing with cargoes you know about, without having to deal with those you don’t know about.

The SOLAS regulation 11-2/10.1.2 states that the firefighting requirements are to ‘supress and quickly extinguish a fire in the space or area of origin’.  But on a ULCV this may not actually be possible. The containers could be stacked 11 boxes high below deck and 9 boxes high above deck, with deck lashings and bridges up to tier 4, a seafarer’s or salvage team’s access to fire-fight is likely to be severely restricted if not impossible.

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.

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.