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The rising tide of cargo fire incidents: impact and industry concerns

07 May 2024

Monitoring cargo fire risk aboard container ships

Cargo fires aboard shipping vessels can have devastating consequences and represent a serious risk to the safety of the crew, the vessel, the cargo, and the environment. This was evidenced last year, when one carrying nearly 3,000  vehicles in the North Sea caught ablaze, killing one person, and injuring several others.1

And, while compared to the thousands of cargo ships in transit each year, such incidences remain rare, their occurrence is rising. In 2022, 200 fires were reported, the highest for a decade, with activity up 17% year-on-year, according to a report by insurer Allianz . In fact, insurers   say that fire and explosion remain the most expensive cause of marine insurance claims. A reality that is causing growing concern among stakeholders across the maritime industry.2

The impact of modern vessel design and operations

Container ships today carry 1,500% more containers than they did in the late 1960s.3 It's believed this huge expansion in the size of modern cargo ships has made it more challenging for ship managers, the Master and ship crew to mitigate and manage onboard fires.

As fires on large vessels typically start with combustible cargo, carrying larger container volumes automatically increases the fire risk, but also the danger of holding mis-declared goods; that could be flammable. 4 This can be dangerous, because if crew are unaware a container holds hazardous material, they may incorrectly store it, not allowing for heat dissipation or other preventative measures.

The growth in the use of lithium batteries, particularly in cars, could also present another fire risk – an electric vehicle containing a lithium battery is suspected to have started the incident in the North Sea last year. If one cell overheats, the battery can enter a state of thermal runaway which can quickly spread to other cells.

What’s more, the increasing size of vessels means fires, once ignited, can easily go unnoticed, spreading quickly, until they become impossible for crew to extinguish, forcing them to abandon ship. Modern designs focused on compactness can also mean it takes a long time to determine the root of ignition, making it harder to put out.

Bigger vessels equal larger losses and costlier salvage operations because they require specialist equipment to be reclaimed from the sea and specific port infrastructure. This all comes at a high price. According to some estimates, losses, salvage operations and environmental considerations can cost up to $1bn for a 200-metre container ship designed to carry around 4,200 vehicles.5

Beyond fire - other forms of cargo loss

Fires are not the only cause of cargo loss. In its last report, the World Shipping Council (WSC) noted that on average 1,566 containers were lost at sea each year. 6 Besides fire, reasons for these losses include improper packaging and incorrect stowage, theft, and harsh environmental conditions.

These losses are expensive and can compromise crew safety but they’re also detrimental to the environment. While it’s difficult to measure the full environmental impact, it’s known that chemical and cosmetic pollutants, bunker oil and other cargo types pollute oceans, impacting marine life and sometimes forcing nearby fisheries to shut down. This happened in 2021,  when a vessel carrying 1,486 containers, including nitric acid and other chemicals, caught fire offshore Sri Lanka. Such incidents highlight the need for better preventative strategies for cargo losses.7

Challenges to overcoming cargo fire risks

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) and aviation authorities impose stringent regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials. These rules mandate proper labelling, packaging, and handling procedures to mitigate the risk of fire incidents. However, due to diverse global standards, inconsistent enforcement, and evolving challenges posed by emerging cargo types, compliance with these regulations is a constant challenge.

Additionally, operational practices and industry standards significantly influence cargo fire risk management. But due to the complexity and dynamic nature of the supply chain, with its intricate network of stakeholders, fostering standardisation and maintaining consistency across different regions and organisations can be challenging.

For ship managers and operators, adopting new and advanced safety solutions can present financial and logistical hurdles, given the size of vessels and fleets.

Innovative solutions and industry responses

The industry is keen to respond to the issue of fire and cargo loss and is doing so with a range of initiatives and emerging technologies that hope to reverse the increasing incidence trend. They include better fire detection systems, fire suppression technologies, and thermal insulation materials that can contribute to early detection and the rapid containment of fire outbreaks. To enhance safety, there is also an emphasis on improving training programs for seafarers in fire detection and firefighting techniques, ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to handle onboard fire emergencies effectively.

One such cross industry initiative, Safety Tech Accelerator, launched by Lloyd's Register (LR) and Lloyd's Register Foundation in 2018, is looking to progress technology advances in three key areas: onboard cargo control; fire detection and stopping the spread through effective onboard response; and managing the challenges created by the increasing scale of vessels.

Similarly, the MARIN Top Tier JIP , is, among other things, working to establish better crew training to prevent and respond to fire incidences, including fostering a safety-first culture with rigorous management procedures in place.8

For this, OneOcean's Docmap, a mobile and web-based solution for the management of QHSE operations on vessels and onshore, can provide paper-free access to all relevant information. The application simplifies compliance processes and document management with modules for risk assessments, audits, and incidents. Users can create dynamic check lists for operational risk assessments.

The solution can be complemented by Regs4ships, LR OneOcean's Regulatory Compliance solution. Regs4ships is a trusted source for live and archived official regulatory publications, meeting all mandatory compliance and carriage requirements. These include SOLAS, an important international treaty concerning the safety of merchant ships, which is frequently reviewed and amended by IMO member states. The IMDG code, an international code for the maritime transport of dangerous goods in packaged form, is also included and regularly updated on the platform. All documents are searchable by both onboard and onshore users.

Overcoming cargo fire risks requires a concerted effort, from crew, ship managers and operators, but also through industry collaboration. For ship managers, having real-time access to all the relevant updated documents, risk assessments, processes and procedures, will put them in the best position to plan, react and ultimately mitigate fires and the associated loss.

LR OneOcean
The team at LR OneOcean. Contact us at [email protected] .

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