Firefighting at Sea: Towards Safer Ships – A Holistic Approach

John Gow

No single solution will solve fires at sea - a holistic approach must be adopted to reduce disasters and respond effectively.

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Fire is a significant threat to many different types of ships. But since the Maersk Honam fire in 2018, there has been a renewed focus on container ship safety. Larger vessels, increased cargo carrying capacity combined with smaller crew size, there is no doubt that there is a potential for more fire-related shipping disasters to occur.

Industry leaders are now actively considering the lessons learned from past shipping disasters as well as measures that could be put in place to reduce fire risk or explosion at sea. It is clear that no single solution will solve this problem and a holistic approach must be adopted. But the concept of a safe ship with respect to the fire peril is not beyond reach.

The Safe Ship Concept

The key element of any safe ship concept should, among other things, consider the existing regulatory framework. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is the most significant of all the international conventions dealing with maritime safety. The SOLAS Convention protects maritime workers and ship passengers by providing regulations and standards for the construction, equipment and operation of passenger and cargo ships.

Fire protection, detection and extinction regulations for ships are specifically set out in Chapter II-2 of the SOLAS Convention (Part A, Regulation 2). Several nations and maritime industry organizations have argued, though, that amendments are needed to improve the SOLAS fire detection provision and consider better fire control methods for below and above deck cargo. The challenge now facing the industry is the development of new detection and protection measures that are suitable for the challenges ahead.

Fire Protection Challenges and Solutions for Container Ships

While the industry currently recognises the difficulties associated with fire detection on container ships, the operating principals of below deck cargo hold detection systems are reliant on the same design principles as those produced in 1918. Fire detection in above deck cargo is even more challenging, since it depends on how quickly the fire is discovered by the crew.

Ship design is one factor that can impact a crew’s response to a fire outbreak. Fire control is reliant on the crew’s ability to limit the availability of oxygen or cool the fire through application of water. These tasks are labour intensive and can be even more physically demanding in emergency situations. Because larger ships require more time to muster and deploy firefighting teams, the industry must look to automation to relieve these burdens and improve response time.

Command structure and training of on-board firefighters are also critical components of fire safety on ships. The success of any operation is dependent on the maintenance of a unified command, the absence of which will result in delays in decision making and loss of strategic oversight. Equally, a realistic training program at sea must be considered. Emerging risks from new fuel types such as ammonia, hydrogen, electricity will all have an impact on training, equipment, and resources.

Other fire safety measures that may provide additional protection include on-deck firefighting monitors and external drenchers which can be situated around the structure to help protect the command centre.

What’s Next?

There is no single solution to the problem of fire at sea, and any future works must consider regulatory framework, ship design, fire detection and protection, and crew competency. Information gleaned from investigations of both large and small fire incidents can provide the industry with a greater understanding of fire prevention as well as how to provide a more effective response when the unthinkable does happen.

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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
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