To start a fire a source of ignition, combustible material and air is needed. In most engine room fires this translates to a non-insulated hot area, a leakage of oil and the air in the engine room. In cargo spaces it can translate into a cigarette, cargo and abundant air. The variations to start a fire are many, but with a fire preventive attitude and training in accordance to procedures the risk is minimised.
Facts and Findings
- In 7 out of 10 cases fires occur when the vessel is on passage at sea.
- Only in one tenth of the cases studied, the fire occured during shipyard or drydock operations.
- Most fires start in the engine room and are, in 7 out of 10 cases, caused by fuel oil leakage or short circuit of electrical equipment.
- One third of the fires originate from cargo spaces.
- Keep a high general standard of cleanliness in the machinery spaces.
- Ascertain that there is no hazardous leakage of oil in the machinery spaces.
- All pipes and fittings should be routinely checked.
- All repairs that are carried out to oil pipes and fittings should be of a permanent nature.
- All high-pressure fuel oil pipes should be properly shielded.
- Ensure that insulation/lagging covers all hot surfaces.
- Ensure that all readily combustible materials are stored away only in designated areas.
- Regularly test that the quick-closing valves are functioning.
- The fire dampers must be functioning and regularly tested.
- Contactors and connections in electrical installations should be regularly checked. All repairs of electric equipment to be performed or supervised by qualified personnel.
- Test that the engine room fire alarm is working properly and be sure that the crew is well aware of the fire fighting and emergency procedures.
Engine Room Fire Prevention Checklist
The Engine Room Fire Prevention Programme moves in to second phase
Engine room fire - how to avoid the unnecessary
(Source: Engine Room Fire Prevention Checklist)
- Smoking must never be permitted in areas where cargo is handled (hold, open hatchways, container, container stuffing area etc.).
- When carrying cargo with tendency towards self-ignition monitoring of temperatures should be performed and unnecessary ventilation should be avoided.
- Stowing, separation and lashing of dangerous goods must be done according to the IMDG code.
- Securing of cargo on Ro-Ro decks must be arranged so that fire-fighting equipment is unobstructed during loading, discharging and on sea passage.
Ship fires – causing large cargo claims
The risk of fires on board vessels is fortunately not very common as we can see from the statistics, but when fire does break out the consequences can be severe, and this can lead to tragic outcomes such as loss of life and also large cargo claims. The risk of a fire happening is something every seafarer is aware of and trained to respond to. When at sea there is no fire brigade that can assist and it is only the knowledge of the crew and the equipment on board that will protect the vessel and crew from disaster.
The paper, Ship fires from the late Dr Eric Mullen highlights the most common immediate causes, but also what needs to be done to prevent fires from happening. These causes are nothing new, but fires still happen, and in recent years there have been some extremely serious fires. Some of these fires have been caused by wrongly declared
container cargo, a situation which concerns the entire industry. However, at the time of any incident it doesn’t matter who was at fault - the fire needs to be extinguished. The importance of following good working practices is essential in preventing fires.
Engine room fires:
Prevention is best achieved by preventing any leak in the first place and is best served by ensuring that engineers and oilers are properly trained and supervised when undertaking their work and that work is checked on completion. This good maintenance practice should, of course, extend to work being carried out on all heat producing equipment in the engine room. Boilers and incinerators, for example, also have that dangerous mix of available fuel and a good ignition source.
Engine room training, supervision and checking protocols can help reduce the likelihood of a fire occurring, and if the latter, properly planned maintenance and monitoring, including the use of thermal imaging, can identify developing faults before they become too serious.
In many cases this combustible material is waste, such as rags (oily or otherwise). As these can be readily ignited by even relatively weak sources of ignition, such as a lit cigarette butt, it goes without saying that good housekeeping in an engine room is an essential.
Ship Fires - Where? How? Prevention!
Dr Eric Mullen
Partner – Regional Director
Dr. J.H. Burgoyne & Partners (Int’l) Ltd, Singapore
As with any fire, those on ships can happen almost anywhere and at any time. Sometimes a master has little or no control of a fire breaking out; imagine, for example, a fire following a collision, an Exocet missile coming through the side of your vessel or a Somali pirate setting light to your accommodation. In such cases there is little advice we can give, other than to remain vigilant, stay away from war zones and any disputed islands in the South China Sea, and try to avoid inviting pirates of any nationality on board.
Fortunately, most fires are similar in nature and are preventable. The most common areas where fires occur are engine rooms, accommodation blocks and in cargo, which I shall mention in turn.
1. ENGINE ROOM FIRES
By far the most common cause of fires in engine rooms is fuel spray igniting on a hot surface. Oil spray often occurs at purifiers, main engines and, in my experience, and most commonly, at auxiliary engines. The fuel spray can be heavy fuel oil, diesel or lubricating oil. Although fuel lines and couplings can fail spontaneously, it is more common that the leak occurs shortly after maintenance has been carried out, or while being carried out. This can range from simply turning a three-way valve on a fuel filter the wrong way, at the wrong time, to over-tightening or under-tightening nuts or physically damaging pipelines.
Spray from engine room equipment can be at relatively high pressures and can spray many metres from the source of the leak. Almost invariably there is a hot exhaust or some other hot surface nearby. Typically, these can be at a temperature greater than the auto ignition temperature of the sprayed liquid, resulting in a fire.
There is a SOLAS requirement for exhaust systems and other surfaces to be adequately shielded, but this is predominantly a matter of preventing injury and in practice it is difficult to make coverings around exhausts and turbochargers liquid tight when subjected to prolonged exposure to large quantities of liquid. Moreover, fine mists of hot liquid fuels can be ignited by other sources, such as sparks or hot surfaces in electrical equipment. Hence, prevention is best directed to not having the leak in the first place and is best served by ensuring that the engineers and oilers are properly trained and supervised when undertaking their work and that work is checked on completion.
This good maintenance practice should, of course, extend to work being carried out on all heat producing equipment in the engine room. Boilers and incinerators, for example, also have that heady mix of available fuel and a good ignition source.
The presence of electrical panels and equipment in engine rooms means that, on occasion, electrical fires can occur. In our experience, these are mercifully rare. Sometimes they are the result of repair and maintenance work being carried out and sometimes a consequence of component failure. If the former, the same engine room training, supervision and checking protocols can help reduce the likelihood of a fire occurring, and if the latter, proper planned maintenance and monitoring, including the use of thermal imaging, can identify developing faults before they become too serious.
Hot work is a potent source of ignition, be it welding, cutting or grinding. Where possible, the work piece should be taken to a safe area for working on, but in cases where this is not possible, care needs to be taken that combustible material in and around the work area is removed or shielded. In many cases this combustible material is waste, such as rags, oily or otherwise. As these can be readily ignited by even relatively weak sources of ignition, such as a lit cigarette butt, it goes without saying that good housekeeping in an engine room is always not only preferable, it is a must.
Most owners have implemented the International Ship Management (ISM) Code on their vessels. This provides a good basis on which to monitor maintenance checking of equipment. But beware, the checks need checking as we know of cases where the paperwork sent to the office has the requisite box ticked but the actual repair, on say a fuel system, was deferred because the engineers were “a bit busy” just then.
2. ACCOMMODATION FIRES
Accommodation fires are generally similar to those found in any dwelling and are most commonly the result of either an electrical fault, or human factor, whether accidental or deliberate. Accidental human factor fires are usually caused by the careless disposal of smokers’ materials but can also be the result of any facet of being human, like leaving fat filled pans on galley stoves, leaving combustible materials too near heaters.
Deliberate fires are typically the result of ill will amongst the crew or a disaffected crewman. Good housekeeping, checks on equipment in cabins and a watchful eye on the wellbeing of the crew are the best ways of preventing such fires.
3. CARGO FIRES
A master has some measure of control over the loading of bulk cargo and can take steps to prevent any fires. The most common causes of fire in agricultural and general product cargoes are the careless disposal of smokers’ materials, often by stevedores who are notorious for both open and clandestine smoking, cargo lights being left on, and problems with fumigants.
In some cases self-heating can lead to a fire, but this is relatively uncommon. Vigilance and good working practices when loading are the key to fire prevention of these cargoes; these should extend to any hot work carried out in the way of part filled or full cargo holds.
Self-heating in cargo such as coal, can potentially lead to a fire. By far the most effective means of preventing such fires is to rigorously adhere to the requirements of the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes Code (IMSBC) during and after loading.
Regrettably, there is much less that a master can do in relation to containerised cargo. Misdeclaration of a container’s contents is very common and, of course, the ones misdeclared are often the ones most likely to cause a problem. It is often the case that a master is given only the Dangerous Goods Manifest and, in any event, it is unreasonable to expect him to review and verify the declared contents of every container on the vessel.
In practice there is little more a master can do other than ensure that those dangerous goods he does know about are carried in accordance with the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code and that proper checks of the containers are carried out during the voyage.
Oil and chemical tankers
These present their own challenges, as many of the cargoes are flammable and hence liable to fires and explosions. It is no secret that the greatest risks are when loading and unloading, as it is then that there is the greatest likelihood of there being spillage of liquid or vapours from the cargo or there being a flammable mixture of cargo vapours in the tanks, equipment running and crewmen working on deck. Sources of ignition include running motors and pumps that can provide both electrical and mechanical sparks and heating, static electricity, mechanical sparks as a result of dropped tools or inappropriate footwear and the use of unauthorised or damaged equipment, in one case this being a cigarette lighter used to ‘cut’ a nylon rope!
Cleaning crude oil tanks, especially if being carried out manually, presents its own risks, as there is a potential for ignition by static electricity during water hose washing, steaming, mechanical sparks or the use of inappropriate lighting.
Preventative measures against fires
The occurrence of fires and explosions in tankers can be greatly reduced by following the International Safety Guide for Tankers & Terminals (ISGOTT) but, as with all fires, proper maintenance of equipment and ensuring safe working practices go a long way to preventing incidents. In short, it is not possible to prevent fires on vessels entirely; some events are beyond a Master’s control. Nevertheless, most fires are preventable by means that are well understood and can be summarised as good working practice.
• Ensure that the engineers and oilers are properly trained and supervised when undertaking their work and that work is checked on completion so that any problems can be detected and rectified.
• Carry out proper planned maintenance and monitoring, including the use of thermal imaging, in order to identify developing faults before they become too serious.
• During hot work ensure no combustible material is around the work area or that it is shielded.
• Keep good housekeeping in the engine room, no waste or rags.
• Carry out inspections to ensure there is good housekeeping in the accommodation and especially galley. No pans with oils, no dangerous material in lockers or cabins.
• Carry out a two person check to ensure that the filled out checklist has been adhered to.
• Follow the IMDG and IMSBC Code rigorously.
• On a container vessel the Master should ensure that those dangerous goods he does know about are carried in accordance with the IMDG Code and that proper checks of the containers are carried out during the voyage.
• Make sure there are no sources of ignition on open decks, such as running motors and pumps, that can provide both electrical and mechanical sparks and heating, static electricity, mechanical sparks as a result of dropped tools or inappropriate footwear and the use of unauthorised or damaged equipment.
• Ensure that the fire detection system is fully operational.
As Dr Mullen mentions, it is not only important to have the correct procedures for preventing fires, there must also be checks that ensure that these procedures are followed. This is best done during internal audits and when a superintendent is visiting the vessel.
The occurrence of fires and explosions in tankers can be greatly reduced by following the International Safety Guide for Tankers & Terminals (ISGOTT) but, as with all fires, proper maintenance of equipment and ensuring safe working practices go a long way to preventing incidents.
In short, it is not possible to prevent fires on vessels entirely; some events are beyond a master’s control. Nevertheless, most are preventable by means that are well understood and can be summarised as good working practice.
In that regard, in addition to the IMO publications such as the ISM Code, the IMSBC and the IMDG Code, and ISGOTT there are guidelines and advisories provided by the Flag State and your P&I Club. With such resources and with a measure of care and attention to the vessel and crew the incidences of fire can be kept to a minimum.
From the Club’s perspective
THE RISK of a fire happening onboard a vessel is fortunately not very common but when it happens the consequences can be severe, which can lead to tragic consequences such as loss of lives. The risk of a fire happening is something every seafarer is aware of and trained to respond to. When at sea there is no fire brigade that can assist. It is the knowledge of the crew and equipment that will protect the vessel and crew from disaster.
In this article Dr Mullen highlights the most common immediate causes but also what needs to be done to prevent fires from happening. These causes are nothing new but fires still happen and in the last couple of years there have been some really serious fires.
He also highlights the importance of following good working practices. We share this belief as one of the main reasons why casualties happen. This is why one of our Loss Prevention projects this year will be to analyse some of the recent fires and see if there are some common issues.