IUMI Calls for Action on Container Ship Fire Safety

The deadly cargo fire aboard the Maersk Honam, March 2018 (Indian Coast Guard)

Published Oct 18, 2019 5:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) is calling for action to address the growing problem of container fires. In 2019 alone, an alarming number of cargo fires have broken out aboard container ships, including the blazes aboard the Yantian Express, APL Vancouver, Grande America, E.R. Kobe and KMTC Hong Kong. At a conference in Arendal, Norway, organised by marine insurer and P&I Club, Gard, and attended by IMO, flag states, shipowners, salvors, class, and insurers, IUMI strengthened its position on this global issue.

“Fire-fighting capabilities onboard containerships are deficient and we need to see more headway to improve the safety of the crew, the environment, the cargo and the ships themselves," said Helle Hammer, the chair of the policy forum. While Hammer noted that mis-declaration and non-declaration of cargo is the root cause behind these incidents, she called for improvements in shipboard fire systems. "There is agreement among experts that the current means of controlling a fire in the cargo hold are of little effect. The safety objectives set out in SOLAS do not seem to be met, and in light of the various recent casualties the time for action is now," she said. 

In a comprehensive position paper released in 2017, IUMI laid out a series of specific fire safety improvements to address this issue. The paper calls for compartmentalizing container holds and installing fixed water-based firefighting systems to maintain fire boundaries. Existing CO2 flooding systems cannot displace the oxygen inside a burning container, and they have proven to be ineffective at fighting large-scale container fires. Water-based sprinkler systems could be used to cool cargo hold bulkheads, tank decks, hatch covers, weather decks and the cargo itself in order to prevent the fire from spreading. The ship's bilge pump system would have to be adequately sized to handle all of the water introduced for firefighting. "Past experience has shown that hatch fires can only be extinguished if the respective section is flooded with water," IUMI member GDV asserts.

The position paper calls for a comparable sprinkler system mounted on boundary structures abovedecks, along with remote-controlled, deck-mounted telescopic fire monitors. To defend the deckhouse, the proposal suggests external water-curtain sprinkler systems and additional fire monitors fore and aft.

“Our position paper recommends that firefighting systems should be arranged to segregate the ship into fire compartments where the fire can be isolated to prevent it from spreading. Onboard systems could then cool the containers and allow them to burn out in a controlled manner," said Hammer. "IUMI is calling for all stakeholders to work together and encourage IMO to strengthen fire protection in the cargo area of container vessels; amend SOLAS by explicitly including active and/or passive fire protection on board new container vessels; and consider the need to address the firefighting equipment of existing container vessels.”