Container ship fires: industry must be proactive as well as reactive


Stuart Edmonston, director of casualty prevention at Thomas Miller P&I Ltd, will be the opening speaker at the Nautical Institute’s conference: Fires on Container Ships. In it he will examine some of the changes being implemented by the industry to avoid the human and financial costs of fires on board ships, and take a look at what is needed in the future.

As the years go by, serious incidents caused by or related to dangerous goods continue to occur, not only on ships but also in ports. Mistakes, misunderstandings, misdeclarations and improper packing and securing are the cause of many of these incidents.

As ultra-large container ships increase in size, the potential for human, economic and environmental accidents increases in proportion.

Today The Loadstar reports that a fire aboard the Zim Kingston has been confirmed to have been caused by a container collapse that damaged boxes containing hazardous cargo. Fortunately, no crew members were injured.

The tragic loss of five crew members when the Maersk Honam caught fire on March 6, 2018, prompted CINS* (the Cargo Incident Notification System) to issue new safety guidance entitled Safety Considerations for Ship Operators Related to Risk-Based Stowage of Dangerous Goods on Container Vessels, which was prepared by a working group comprised of CINS members, classification societies, a flag state and the International Group of P&I clubs.

The guidelines are intended to help improve fire safety on board container ships. However, for the guidelines to work, they rely heavily on shippers submitting accurate cargo declarations. The new guidelines do not replace SOLAS and IMDG requirements for stowage and segregation, but enhance the requirements of these regulations.

One of the biggest obstacles to progress is that the root cause of these incidents begins ashore, with the packing of cargo and its stowage inside containers. Historically, cargo stowage was carried out by the first officer, who was fully trained and understood dangerous goods (DG) cargo, its hazards and how to stow it safely and efficiently on board.

Today, those in charge of container stowage often do not have the time, motivation or access to the information needed to know how to stow a container correctly. There is also a lack of communication and transparency within the supply chain, and the large number of parties involved also contributes to the complexity of the problem.

The industry and its representative bodies, such as IMO, tend to be reactive after an incident, but what is needed is a proactive attitude and a change of approach in the way things are done. We also need to keep in mind that the DG classification and regulations are complex and open to different interpretations.

If we look at the volume of hazardous and non-hazardous flammable cargo on board ultra large crude carriers (ULCCs), the size of any fire on board will be almost impossible to contain. However, there are steps the industry can take.

By developing trust and transparency throughout the supply chain, the carrier can know the cargo on board the vessel. This can be aided by the use of automated cargo screening and machine learning to compare declarations.

Better use of DG compliance software will also help, but this will not prevent misdeclarations if some shippers continue to fraudulently declare dangerous cargo. However, if used correctly, the software can play an important role in segregation, declaration and documentation requirements.

Indeed, increased use of technology in general will be essential in the future and, if combined with increased inspections followed by enforcement of criminal liability for non-compliers, should help reduce the number of incidents.

Of course, we cannot expect to completely eliminate fires on board, but we can improve the way they are managed. Additional guidance by class, with improved firefighting designs, is needed, as there is widespread concern about the adequacy of current firefighting systems on board container ships. Fixed firefighting equipment for the cargo spaces of a large container ship, as required by SOLAS.

The current DG classifications are too complex for the untrained person to understand; they are open to different interpretations and so need to be clearer and more straightforward, perhaps using modern technology, animations and infographics, to explain the issues.

On a more positive note, people are taking action to address the issue of onboard container fires. We need all stakeholders within the industry to work together, collaborating and sharing information and ideas.

We hope The Nautical Institute conference will help the industry at large to understand the extent of the problems and the solutions needed to make the transport of hazardous cargo within the global supply chain safer.

Source The Loadstar

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