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The challenge of firefighting on a container ship

Container ship fireWhat is it that makes firefighting onboard container ships quite so challenging? 

 

That was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by insurers TT Club entitled ‘Container ship fires: what can the ship do?’. John Gow, a former firefighter and latterly senior investigator for International Fire Investigators and Consultants (IFIC) began by highlighting the perennial issue of undeclared and misdeclared cargo. One recent study has suggested that the reason for this problem is the high hazardous surcharge and restrictions imposed by cargo carriers, while at the same time there is heavy demand for the transit of such goods. 

 

“If you don’t know what your cargo is, it’s very challenging to adopt the correct measures and deploy the right firefighting medium,” cautions Gow.

 

Contrast with land-based response

To help comprehend the formidable threat crew are confronted with by a container ship fire, Gow highlights the example of a not untypical vessel with a keel to mast height of 72m and a stack of containers the same height. By way of comparison, Grenfell Tower, the London apartment block in which fire killed 72 people in 2017, was a fraction smaller at 67m. 

 

Land-based firefighting has, Gow says, advanced significantly in recent years, particularly with regard to provision of PPE. The development of lightweight materials for equipment such as breathing apparatus eases the burden on the firefighters, while concrete buildings are purposely designed to offer easy access to the location of the fire and to contain it in the compartment and floor of origin. Additionally, response to a fire report in an urban area typically occurs within minutes and further resources and equipment are readily on hand.

 

All of which offers a stark contrast with firefighting on the open ocean. The minimum requirement is for oxygen cylinders to contain 1,200litres, which ideally should last for 30 minutes, but with the inhalation of carbon monoxide and the anxiety of the situation this is actually far less. 

 

“The impact on your body is significant and by the time you get to the scene of operations you have very little air left to do anything. It’s likely you would have to be relieved in a few minutes and return back to fresh air,” says Gow. 

 

Although a ship’s metal structure offers some advantages in preventing the spread of a fire, the close proximity of the cargo – far narrower than you might find between vehicles in a typical car park – facilitates it. These confined spaces make it almost impossible to deploy firefighting crew below deck. 

 

Further complications arise with onboard operating procedures. As with fires on land, the fire may have had ample time to propagate before discovery, but at sea a crew member must firstly be dispatched to confirm there is a fire, and the other crew then mustered, before any action is taken. An additional consideration may be the direction of the smoke and whether the ship needs to be repositioned to improve the success of firefighting operations. 

 

Onboard machinery and the crew accommodation are usually well protected from the threat of fire, whereas machinery spaces often have their own challenges, such as steep ladders and slippery surfaces, and accessing them may require multiple crew to assist in the operation. While equipment resources will be located at specified points onboard, the fire may mean that not all equipment is available. 

 

Typically there is an average of 23 crew onboard a container ship, which compares favourably with the number of firefighters who might be dispatched for a land-based incident. The challenge at sea is that, in the event of a severe fire, additional resources will be hours, if not days, away from providing support. 

 

Moreover, given the basic firefighting course (as stipulated by the STCW Code for crew training) is just two and a half days, compared to the 12 weeks required for land-based firefighting, there is an enormous difference in the crew’s experience.

 

For the full article please see the March 2021 edition of The Naval Architect.