A Safe Ship for Seafarers: Challenges of Protecting Crew Against Fire and Explosion

John Gow

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Jun 24, 2022

Seafarers face a number of challenges, none more dangerous than the fire peril. On this Day of the Seafarer, John Gow looks at the hazards seafarers encounter and what can be done to reduce fire risk onboard marine vessels.

There are over 1.5 million seafarers serving the marine industry and consumers around the world. Under normal circumstances, these dedicated men and women go about their business hidden from public consciousness - until a disaster occurs or the supply chain is disrupted and goods do not arrive. Little thought is often given to the challenges they face on a daily basis.

According to the AGCS Safety and Shipping Review, in 2021, there were approximately 1,995 incidents related to piracy. These occurred mainly in the high-risk regions of the Gulf of Guinea, Southeast Asia, and the Western and Indian Oceans. These attacks are carried out by armed assailants with crew often held hostage until ransom demands are paid. The impact on lives and the uncertainty faced by crew and their families are enormous.

In recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in crews stranded around the world unable to get ashore or be repatriated due to restrictions on entry and travel around the globe. Crew have seen themselves confined to vessels, some for upwards of 12 months as companies attempt to re-connect them with their families and support welfare needs.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 saw thousands of seafarers stranded in Ukrainian ports, confined to vessels and challenged with finding food and supplies. The longer a crew is trapped the more challenging it becomes to maintain crew welfare. The constant threat of attack and becoming unintended victims of the war will only exacerbate these challenges.

The maritime sector also faces other hazards, such as extreme weather, collision and the foundering of vessels, often accompanied by injury and death. But in recent years it is the fire peril that more often hits the headlines. One example is the recent incident involving the Felicity Ace, which caught fire and sank - though public interest may have had more to do with the high value cars being carried as opposed to the fire event itself. These events too often go unreported by the world media unless they are accompanied by an environmental impact.

In recent years, the shipping sector has seen ship size and cargo carrying capacity increase, which brings challenges to the early detection of fire and subsequent emergency response onboard. This may lead to the total loss of the vessel and injury and death of crew as they wait for support from other vessels that may be hours or days away.

These fires often originate within containers carrying undeclared or mis-declared cargo, which are often dangerous goods that can self-heat and cause fire or explosion. These cargos are shipped by unscrupulous people attempting to save on cost while putting the lives of seafarers and rescuers at risk.

As I have written before, there is no single solution to the problems faced by seafarers, and a holistic approach must be taken to ensure that the design and construction of ships use automation where possible to reduce the risk to crew when they respond to fire. The regulatory framework must keep pace with the changing shape and size of ships. Fire detection and protection systems must be up to the hazards they face. And crew must be equipped and trained under realistic conditions to face current and emerging risks. If we can achieve this then the concept of a safe ship can be realized.

On this Day of this Seafarer it is important that we not only recognise the challenges faced by seafarers, but also the contribution they make to the Global Economy and Society at large.

Learn more about Jensen Hughes marine fire investigation services.

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About the author

John Gow
John is a highly experienced Fire Investigator who has provided expert testimony in fatal accident inquiry, criminal and civil court