What the USS Bonhomme Richard Taught us About Fire Risk on Ships

John Gow

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Sep 4, 2020

The recent fire on board the USS Bonhomme Richard is a stark reminder that fire poses a significant risk to the global shipping industry. On July 12, 2020, the USS Bonhomme Richard was berthed at the Naval Base San Diego undergoing maintenance with a reduced crew of about 160, down from the full complement of about 1,000, when a fire broke out. The fire, which ravaged the vessel for just over four days, caused injury to a reported 40 sailors and 23 civilians and has likely caused many millions of dollars in damages. While it is unclear if the ship will return to service, there is no doubt that any delay in returning to service will have a much wider impact.

This is the latest in a growing trend of ships damaged while undergoing maintenance.

Fires and explosions also broke out on other non-merchant ships such as the USS Iwo Jima, cargo ship New Wind and crude oil tanker Afromax while they were docked and undergoing regular maintenance and repairs.

The risk of fire is ever-present on board every ship, but that risk is heightened during periods of repair or maintenance. Why is this the case and how can these fires and explosions be prevented?

What increases fire risk during ship maintenance?

The prevention of fire on board is every crew member and contractor’s responsibility but this task becomes more challenging during maintenance when additional contractors and equipment for repair or upgrades are brought on board. With the addition of paints, fuels and access equipment (such as ladders or scaffold), the areas once familiar to shipboard emergency teams become cluttered and obstructed.

Combine this set of circumstances with an outbreak of fire, copious amounts of toxic smoke, high temperatures, the noise of expanding metal, a falling structure and the risk of explosion, and the scene is set for perhaps the most challenging experience any ships’ crew or firefighter can face.

How can these fire risks be mitigated?

The prevention of such an event is critical to the safety of the crew, the ship contractors and emergency responders. Effective planning is key to any maintenance project. The larger the project, the more critical that planning can become – especially around fire risk management and response.

The objective for all involved in the project should be to develop, manage, implement and communicate safety standards from the earliest stages of planning, procurement and project delivery. The fire risk assessment and standard operating procedures (SOP) must be reviewed continuously as the structure changes shape ensuring that fire protection measures and response arrangements are equal to the task.

While it is essential to have clear fire safety measures in place, if the implementation is ineffective and not enacted at every level then the risk of fire will be constant.

Following a fire, it is important that lessons are documented and solutions are put in place to prevent a reoccurrence. A fire investigation usually focuses on the origin and cause of the fire, but the information gathered during an investigation can be used to evaluate the adequacy of the existing fire prevention measures, operational procedures, emergency response arrangements, training and communication systems. This is part of the feedback loop that will contribute to reducing future risk and preventing fire on all types of facilities and vessels, including naval ships.