Insurers Warn on Ro-Ro Fires

Norman Atlantic fire
Norman Atlantic fire

Published Feb 8, 2017 5:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has voiced concern over fires on ro-ro passenger vehicles and issued recommendations ahead of an IMO review. 

Marine underwriters have witnessed an increase in the frequency of fires in the car/ro-ro passenger vessel segment and say it is currently twice that of most other vessel types. More than one percent of vessels in the car/ro-ro passenger vessel segment experience a fire every year.

Fire/Explosion claims frequency by vessel type

Analysis of available casualty data and maritime accident reports in recent years has identified several sources of fires within ro-ro vehicle decks. A significant number of these incidents have occurred because of electrical fires. The single most frequent source of fires are reefer units, powered by either electrical cable or a dedicated diesel unit. Electrical equipment on board, vehicle cabs and vehicle engines have also been identified as the source in several of these casualties.

Undeclared or mis-declared cargo is considered another notable fire hazard on board.

Although rumoured to be frequent sources of fires, neither stowaways nor passengers/drivers cooking food in ro-ro spaces have been identified as the cause in any of the casualties investigated.

Fires on ro-ro vehicle decks 1994-2011

Semi-open decks on ro-ro passenger vessels make fire-fighting challenging due to potential air flow and the fact that cargo is often stowed closely together. This will limit the effectiveness of fire extinguishers, and a fire may spread rapidly as a consequence.

The importance of crew training to allow for a quick and comprehensive fire response is paramount, says the IUMI.

The need to deploy drencher systems early in the fire was reiterated in the EMSA FIRESAFE study that was released in December 2016. In March 2016, Interferry released an Operational Best Practice Guidance on ferry safety for ro-ro passenger ships. The key finding of the review was that more attention should be given to response time in the event of an incident.

IMO Actions

The deadly fires aboard the ferries Norman Atlantic in December 2014 and the Sorrento in April 2015 prompted an international response from the IMO in May 2015. The number of fire incidents on ro-ro passenger vehicle decks had already been examined by the IMO Correspondence Group on Casualty Analysis in 2012, noting that there “is no sign of these (fires) diminishing.” The trend was also confirmed in an accident analysis performed by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

In November 2016, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee instructed the Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment to “review SOLAS chapter II-2 and associated codes to minimize the incidence and consequences of fires on ro-ro spaces and special category spaces of new and existing ro-ro passenger ships,” with a target completion year of 2019.


Marine insurers welcome IMO’s review of SOLAS and favour improved regulation at an international level rather than unilateral or regional action. Given the severity of these fires, the IUMI urges an early output of this review.

The IUMI says that the rapid growth and severity of fires on ro-ro vehicle decks underlines the importance of crew training in early detection, confirmation and deployment to prevent a fire from escalating. Continuous monitoring with focus on connected reefer units is highly recommended. The enforcement of restrictions concerning general access to ro-ro decks and charging of electrical cars during transit must be closely supervised. To encourage safety leadership and compliance monitoring, claims history and inspections by coastal states should be actively used.

Casualty data clearly indicates that a very high percentage of ro-ro fires emanate from the vehicles themselves, specifically from trailer reefer units, cab fires and electrical and engine fires, rather from the cargo itself. The IUMI strongly recommends that regulators, shippers and operators address the way vehicles presented for carriage can be made safe, thus effectively improving the inherent risk of carrying vehicles on ro-ro tonnage, specifically lorries.

The electrical wiring of the vessel itself has also been identified as a source of fires. The IUMI suggests that in particular for older ferries this could be an area for further consideration by regulators, operators and class to ensure up-to-date verification of proper wiring.

The IUMI offers to work closely with all stakeholders and regulatory bodies to raise the awareness and mitigate this fire risk. “As marine insurers, we recommend that owners and operators adhere to the Interferry best practice guidance, heed advice from classification societies and ensure compliance with regulations already in place including:

Fire prevention
•    Procedures for refrigerated units
•    Screening and securing of cargo
•    Placement and marking of fuel cell vehicles / dangerous cargo
•    No camping at any time (secure the car decks)

Fire detection, suppression and extinction
•    Crew training and procedures to detect fires and deploy rapid response, including lifesaving and evacuation
•    Maintenance and placement of appropriate suppression/extinction systems