Time to Take Action Against Container Ship Fires

Fire-fighting capabilities onboard container ships are deficient and there is a need to improve the safety of crew, environment, cargo and ships themselves.

This year has already seen an alarming number of container ship fires including Yantian Express, APL Vancouver, Grande America, E.R. Kobe and KMTC Hong Kong.  The escalation is of growing concern and the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has called for an urgent improvement to onboard firefighting systems.

At a recent 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.

Helle Hammer, Chair of IUMI’s Policy Forum, explains: “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.

“Mis and non-declaration of cargo has serious safety implications and is the root cause behind these tragic incidents.  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.”

During the IMO’s 101st Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting in June 2019, IUMI raised its concerns about container ship fires and received support from various quarters, including IACS.

Now, in partnership with the German flag state, IUMI is calling for additional support from flag administrations and other stakeholders to bring this issue to IMO’s agenda in 2020.

In 2017, IUMI published a position paper to raise a variety of concerns including inadequate fire detection and onboard firefighting systems both on deck and under deck; and the need to revise SOLAS. This position paper will provide the foundation for the IMO proposal.

“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.

“Fixed monitors to adequately attack the fire and improved fire detection system are further measures proposed to allow for an appropriate response mechanism.

“Better prevention measures must also address the concerning rise in cargo mis-declaration. The sad reality is that we can no longer sit idle.  Containerships are increasing in size and complexity and this will only exacerbate the problem.”

The 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;
  • consider the need to address the firefighting equipment of existing container vessels.

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