Last year was one of the toughest in container shipping’s history for cargo fires in terms of the number of incidents with insurers warning of the spiralling costs caused by misdeclared cargo that combusts often deep in a cargo hold where it was loaded by unsuspecting crew.
The International Union of Marine Insurers (IUMI) in its 2019 analysis on the marine insurance market found that the first quarter of 2019 was characterised by a renewed impact of major losses and an especially high number of fires on container vessels.
“Safety of life must remain top priority for all stakeholders, including underwriters. Already, 2019 has been impacted by nine major cargo vessel fires which, tragically, have resulted in loss of life, injury and environmental damage. Apart from severe consequences for the crew on board as well as the natural environment, these fires have a strong economic impact, causing high costs to both the hull and cargo sectors,” said the IUMI report.
Cargo fires have long been a cause for concern in the maritime sector, because the consequences of fire onboard a vessel can be lethal. This was the case on the Maersk Honam disaster in March 2018, which cost five crew their lives and millions of dollars in lost cargo, leading to long litigation battles.
Former container ship master, Amerinder Singh Brar, now a consultant at London Offshore Consultants Ltd, also pointed out that the firefighting equipment on board modern container vessels is inadequate. He said that container stacks can be up to nine containers high, and no fire hoses can that far.
What is more the latest SOLAS convention rules, covering fire safety, were developed in 1983. Singh Brar pointed out that many of latest ultra large container ships are built according to regulations that are more than 30 years old. Even though the MSC Gűlsűn’s actual fire safety equipment far exceeds the regulatory requirements.
“Would you buy a car built to 30-year old standards?”, asked Singh Brar.
Cargo fires on board vessels are becoming more prevalent as a result of the increase in size of container ships. Their intensity is increasing as a consequence of what the insurance companies call ‘adjacency’. IUMI’s 2019 report highlights the correlation between vessel size and fire safety.
That very theme was picked up by Richard Janssen, the MD at the Dutch salvage firm Smit, told Ship & Offshore, “The variety of cargo onboard is increasing, there are new chemicals etc., but Janssen said it’s not all to do with dangerous goods, it’s also to do with the adjacency risk, where cargo is stored next to hazardous cargo, and that is a factor of the size of ships, the MSC Flaminia 2012 was 6,700TEU, while the Maersk Honam [which saw five crew killed in a blaze in March 2018], is 15,800TEU, so there is a problem of aggregation, which increases for cargo near to improperly declared shipments putting that cargo at greater risk.”
Container ships carry many different cargoes, around 10% of which are thought to be listed on the International Dangerous Goods codes, and often these cargoes are incorrectly declared, either intentionally to avoid paying the premium for such freight, or unintentionally where shipper may not realise that their cargo can be hazardous.
Daniel Jackson, a partner at the science and engineering consultancy, Burgoynes, said that some cargoes decompose and release heat that is not easily dissipated due to the close proximity of other cargo containers, driving the temperatures ever higher. “The rate of increase in temperature doubles for every 10degs centigrade increase in temperature,” he added.
When the temperature achieves a critical level, fire breaks out and eventually the intensity leads to “thermal runaway” meaning that all available combustible materials are ignited. As a result, the situation quickly becomes uncontrollable for the crew.
Complicating matters is the fact that the second cargo may also be hazardous, and that may have different properties. For example, it could be sensitive to water whereas the initial source of the fire may not be. If the second container is stowed close to the source of the first accident, it could pose a further danger to crew who may use water to fight the initial fire, inadvertently causing a secondary explosion.
Former Lloyd’s Register container shipping expert, David Tozer, explained that the cargo stacks on a large container vessel are only 50-60mm apart, leaving no space for crew to fight fires that have developed deep in the hold. Often the space in the hold has a single shot carbon dioxide system that is designed to prevent fire spreading, but if this system does not work water can be the only alternative.
The kinds of disasters seen in January 2019, on the Yantian Express and APL Vancouver, in March 2019 with the loss of the Grimaldi vessel, Grande America, and Maersk Honam in 2018, have shown just how destructive cargo fires can be. These fires can burn with such intensity that firefighters struggle for weeks to extinguish the flames. Meanwhile crew are ill equipped or trained to deal with some of the fires and the often-toxic fumes they generate.
Vessel firefighting equipment can often be inadequate in the event of fires caused by cargo such as calcium hypochlorite. This chemical is an oxidising agent and is designated as class 5.1 in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code). It is unstable and when it releases heat, through its natural decomposition process it can accelerate the temperature increase if that heat has no means of escape. In this way calcium hypochlorite becomes a self-feeding fire.
According to Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director at the TT Club, many of these cargo fires are due to mis-declared or undeclared cargo. Some shippers can be unaware of the possible dangers of certain types of cargo, such as charcoal, and can inappropriately declare their cargo, which during the course of the voyage can ignite. Others seek to reduce shipping costs by not declaring hazardous cargo, leading to a shipping line inappropriately stowing the container.
Container News understands that the fires on board the Hapag Lloyd ship Yantian Express and the APL Vancouver, were from areas on board the vessels where there was no declared hazardous cargo, though it is unclear what was declared in the cargo that caught fire.
Hapag Lloyd declined an invitation to discuss the fire on board its vessel. While it is not yet clear what caused the fires on the Yantian Express, Grande America and APL Vancouver this year, it is a matter of good fortune that, thankfully, they did not result in crew losses.
Sadly, this was not the case last year when the Maersk Honam experienced a cargo fire that saw the loss of five of the vessel’s crew.
Container shipping lines will normally stow hazardous containers away from the accommodation block and on deck so that the crew can deal with any fire and, hopefully, preventing it spreading. This becomes infinitely more difficult and dangerous if the cargo is stowed below where the crew will be working in a confined space.
Since the 2018 fire on Maersk Honam the Danish liner operator has made significant changes to its own cargo safety rules. Initially the company evaluated more than 3,000 hazardous materials and from this analysis it developed its Risk Based Dangerous Goods Stowage strategy.
The strategy means that any cargo listed in the IMDG Code will not be stowed next to the accommodation block and engine room, which are defined as the zones “with the lowest risk tolerance”.
In addition, the risk tolerance below deck in the central part of the vessel will also be considered high risk areas and out of bounds for storing hazardous cargoes.
Instead, the main areas for stowing high risk freight will be on deck fore and aft. “Utilising statistics on container fires in the Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS), Maersk defined which UN numbers can be stored in each risk zone,” said Ole Graa Jakobsen, Head of Fleet Technology at Maersk.
“All cargo aboard Maersk Honam was accepted as per the requirements of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code and stowed onboard the vessel accordingly. Despite this, as the fire originated in a cargo hold in front of the accommodation, which held several containers with dangerous goods, it had an unbearably tragic outcome.”
According Janssen, the fire on Maersk Honam burnt with such intensity it melted the superstructure of the ship. It is unclear what firefighting tools the crew of the Honam were equipped with, but if it only met IMO regulations it would have had two firefighting hoses, that may or may not have been long enough to reach the top of the stack and a CO2 fire abatement system in the hold.
Had the Honam crew been able to flood the hold maybe their colleagues would still be alive, and the other consequences of the Honam fire could have been averted.
Such a system is available on the latest series of vessels ordered by MSC, the first in the series of 11 ships being the MSC Gűlsűn, which was awarded DNV GL’s notation on fire safety, and will be awarded the other vessels in the new class of ultra large container ships, all with an array of new fire safety measures built into the design.
DNV GL’s new notation, and the MSC vessel designs “go beyond SOLAS,” said DNV GL CEO Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen on announcing the new notation in mid-February. It is a vivid indication that that the design regulations have not kept pace with the reality on the water.
The MSC ships have high pressure hoses mounted high on the towers with a range of around 100m and the later vessels are being tested with thermal imaging early warning systems, which alert crew to increases in temperature.
“This is the first application of this notation, which we developed with MSC,” said Ørbeck-Nilssen, effectively pointing to the fact that industry, rather than taking its lead from the regulator is in fact defining its own safety regulations ahead of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Features such as large capacity firefighting hoses situated high on the towers that can spray water for around 100m and can swivel to cover all parts of the ship have been added to the MSC ship designs.
In addition, the new vessels are capable of flooding individual holds to control fire outbreaks. And later vessels are being tested with thermal imaging cameras that sense changes in temperature for early alerts to fire hazards.
All these changes to the vessel design go beyond the requirements of current regulations.
The new notation for MSC Gűlsűn is FCS (c Hazid FF HF) which was officially announced at a DNV GL press conference in London on 18 February. In this notation HAZID alludes to hazard identification; (FD): enhanced fire detection which MSC Gűlsűn is not yet fitted with; FF stands for enhanced firefighting; HF firefighting by hold flooding.
DNV GL is not the only class society to introduce a new notation. US class society ABS produced its report, Fire-fighting Systems for Cargo Areas of Container Carriers, published in the autumn of last yearin which it made a number of recommendations to the industry.
ABS’s Container Carrier House/Structures (CCH) Notation for “containers equipped with specific cooling arrangements air monitoring, and other arrangements intended to protect crew within accommodation, service spaces, machinery spaces and other normally manned locations from the heat as well as smoke that may be created during a cargo fire.”
ABS argued that following increased incidences of fires on container ships there was a need to publish stringent new guidelines for fighting fires in containers, the class society calls for deck firefighting arrangements that exceed the SOLAS requirements applicable to container vessels.
The firefighting system should “be able to provide the quantity of water necessary to simultaneously supply all required mobile water monitors at the most hydraulically remote location at the required flow rate and with the pressure necessary to reach the top tier of the containers on deck along with all other fire-fighting systems and equipment identified above in … at their required flow rates and pressures while maintaining …. minimum pressures at all hydrants on the vessel.”
ABS recommended that: “vessels having containers on the weather deck will also be equipped with one water mist lance, to be of a type capable of penetrating a standard container. If one water mist lance is provided as per 5C-5-7/3.5.1 of the Marine Vessel Rules, no additional lance is required.”
In this instance industry is leading the way with safety and environmental protection in a high stakes scenario. It is necessary for the regulation to catch quickly with the maritime sector’s lead.