Lessons Learned from the Marine Insurance Asia Conference

John Gow

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28 Apr 2021

The Marine Insurance Asia conference is in progress last week and we were honoured to host a round table discussion on Fire at Sea: Towards Safer Ships.

I was joined by panellists from the marine industry to discuss what more can be done to prevent fire at sea. The subject of fire at sea remains prevalent and whilst fires in containers ships are usually the ones that gain media interest, fires do still occur in other classes of vessel. The Nordic Marine Insurance Statistics (NOMIS) 2019 tell us that whilst the frequency of fire and explosion is low in percentage terms, the occurrence of a single fire or explosion at sea can have a significantly higher impact on overall claim cost than other types of claim.

The report also explains that other vessel types such as Car/RoRo and pure car carriers also show a high fire frequency. Examples of such fires are the Norman Atlantic and the more recent Sincerity Ace.

The panellists discussed recent developments including a joint proposal submitted by the Bahamas, Germany, IUMI, BIMCO and CESA. The proposal puts forward the need for amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations to improve the provision of fire detection and consider measures for the control of fire in cargo stowed both on and underdeck. These measures are a welcome step forward in safety and security for the marine industry.

Discussion also turned to ship design and size. With larger ships, the cost resulting from a fire increases, but so does the time it takes to respond and move crew and equipment to a fire location. The panel agreed that more needs to be done to automate systems that typically require a human intervention to operate, and by doing so the speed of response can be increased and crew, when possible, kept out of unnecessary harm’s way.

As is always the case with any emergency, prevention is better than cure and in the case of container vessels, the undeclared or mis-declared cargo is at the root of this problem. Whilst some good work is being undertaken to deter and identify cargo of this nature, it is unlikely that the issue of undeclared or mis-declared cargo will be eradicated entirely.

Another topic discussed took into consideration crew safety and emerging risks from proposed new fuels such as Ammonia and Hydrogen. Whilst these substances may provide a greener route to sustainability, much work is still to be done on the risks that may emerge from their use. It follows that crew will have to be better trained and equipped to deal with situations such as Ammonia or other leaks and the STCW code and training provision will need to be addressed

Next Steps in Marine Fire Safety

There is no single solution to resolving the problem of fire on board. Any measures to enhance crew and ship safety must include consideration of the Regulatory Framework, Ship design, Fire detection and protection systems, Crew training and competence, and the safe carriage of cargo.

This holistic approach will make positive improvements and contribute to a safer working environment.. Any improvements will also make positive contributions to the welfare of the crew and the sustainability of the industry.

Learning the lessons from past casualties will help inform the way forward but typically we only see investigations into the major incidents that occur. There are many small fires that happen on board involving machinery spaces, accommodation and cargo that are successfully dealt with but unfortunately the reasons for those successes go unreported. Effective investigation of small incidents, near-misses and the like is essential if we are to understand how larger more serious casualties can be avoided.