Container fires onboard: Time to take action - SAFETY4SEA (2023)

Cargo fires are not only an environmental concern but also cause large losses leading to severe business disruption and operator’s reputational damage. No matter how we have progressed on tackling with firefighting onboard, it can only take one container to start a fire onboard a large vessel. Unluckily, SOLAS amendments for fire-fighting arrangements have not kept pace with increases in ship size while better prevention measures must also address the concerning rise in cargo misdeclaration.

OECD figures have estimated one billion TEU in transit by 2030, with Asia leading the increase in volume. Today over 400 million lithium ion batteries and over 15 billion aerosols are said to be produced annually. All these numbers suggest that the container fire risk may get worse; it is estimated that onboard today’s largest vessels of 22,000 TEU, there is more than 4 times the risk of having that one problem container onboard and the consequences of a fire is also more than 4 times as great.

Major fire accidents at sea

2019 produced a significant number of hazardous cargo fires onboard with the most reported being as follows:


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  • On 3 January, the containership “Yantian Express” sustained major fire off Bermuda. 198 containers onboard the ‘Yantian Express’ were estimated to be a total loss.
  • On 29 January, fire broke out in the engine room onboard Maersk’s Panamax containership “Olga Maersk” on route from Panama to Cartagena.
  • On 31 January, Vietnamese Coast Guard responded to a cargo fire on the container ship “APL Vancouver” off Vung Ro, Vietnam.
  • On 14 February, ER Kobe that suffered a fire when three containers on deck loaded with charcoal caught fire while the boxship was heading from Haiphong to Qingdao and later became engulfed in flames again.
  • On 10 March, Italian con/ro “Grande America” caught fire, approximately 140 nm off Finistère, forcing all 27 members of her crew to abandon ship; it sank after two days.
  • On 28 May, fire onboard KMTC containership was reported due to mis-declared chemical cargoes of calcium hypochlorite and chlorinated paraffin wax.

Tacking misdeclaration may well be a first line of defense

Experts from the Gard P&I Club noted that most container fires are associated with cargo misdeclaration which remains a key industry challenge. Namely, between 2014 and 2017, Gard was involved in 13 container cargo fire cases of some significance; six cases involved calcium hypochlorite which is very common chemical product used for water purification, but at the same time it can be very hazardous. In this regard, the International Group of P&I Clubs together with CINS jointly issue guidelines that can essentially be considered “IMDG Code plus precautions”.

‘No matter how carefully cargo is booked, there will still be fires originating in containers’, Gard’s Alf Martin pointed out during a conference on containership fires in Arendal in October, suggesting that a holistic approach is vital. TT Club mentioned that approximately two out of three fire incidents are the result of poor practice in the overall packing process of dangerous goods, which are often misidentified or undeclared. Moreover, the way large containerships are constructed today poses many challenging to the crew when a major fire breaks out since the accommodation, lifeboats and rafts are in close vicinity to containers.

SOLAS and firefighting: Where we stand

Industry stakeholders have identified that the SOLAS requirements may not be adequate for today’s larger container carriers. It is also noted that there are still certain fire safety arrangements not included in the SOLAS Regulations.

‘’We believe the mode of firefighting set out in SOLAS is not suitable for a modern containership…We suggest creating individual fire compartments below deck to prevent fire from spreading. These compartments would be fitted with fixed Co2 and water-based firefighting systems.’’ alerted IUMI’s Helle Hammer.

According to SOLAS, containerships built after 1 January 2016 must have:

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  • At least one water mist lance capable of penetrating a container wall.
  • If 5 or more tiers of containers are carried on or above weather deck, ships with a breadth up to 30 meters are to have at least two mobile water monitors, and for vessels with a breadth exceeding 30 meters there are to be at least four.

However, when it comes to modern large container vessels, there is no regulation demanding firefighting means when cargo on deck rises 30meters above deck level.

IUMI calls for action

During the IMO’s 101st Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meeting in June 2019, IUMI raised its concerns 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 light of Gard’s conference in Arendal, Norwaty, Christen Guddal, Chief Claims Officer at Gard highlighted that serious cargo-related fires on board container ships have occurred at the rate of about one a month. The increased size and cargo capacity of container ships have a real impact on the potential severity of such incidents.

In addition, IUMI took the chance to alert on the situation and call the shipping industry to improve its existent onboard firefighting systems and seafarers’ training, as both seem to lack of efficiency in these challenging times. Helle Hammer, Chair of IUMI’s Policy Forum noted that fire-fighting capabilities onboard containerships are deficient and therefore, industry needs to see more headway to improve the safety of the crew, the environment, the cargo and the ships themselves.

The issue of mis-declaration or non-declaration of cargo seriously affects the safety implications of a vessel and result to incidents. This is because cargo areas have high potential of fire eruption, so all precautions should be taken to ensure that inflammable cargoes are kept in isolated conditions. Concerning mis-declaration of cargoes, Hapag Lloyd previously announced a penalty of USD 15,000 per container for those who fail to properly offer and declare hazardous cargoes prior to their shipment.

In the same length, IUMI proposes 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.

Previously, IUMI had launched a position paper to IMO, providing recommendations on improving firefighting systems onboard vessels as follows:

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  • Responsible authorities, class and relevant industry stakeholders should engage in discussions on how to further improve the fire detection, protection and firefighting capabilities on board container vessels.
  • Implementation of new and improved measures to fight fires on container vessels will not only protect the vessel and the cargo, but also the lives and wellbeing of the crew.

Concluding Gard’s conference, Mr Martin shared his suggestions to move forward with effective firefighting and highlighted that there is a need for much faster alarms from a cargo hold on fire; water monitors permanently installed on lashing bridges; build higher lashing bridges on deck or install “masts” to improve the reach of fire monitors; protect hatch covers by water to stop a fire going through; install water sprinkler systems in all cargo holds, not just in holds for dangerous cargoes; arrange for water curtains to protect superstructure and lifesaving craft and insulate all boundaries of the engine room in purpose- built container vessels, not just the decks.

The recently-launched EU project LASH FIRE aims to address maritime fire safety challenges for Ro-Ro ships. The European Commission will invest 12.2 million euro over the next 4 years.

Tags: container shipsfire onboardIUMIregulatory updateSOLAS

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How do you fight fire in a container? ›

A Water Mist Lance consists of a tube with a piercing nozzle that is capable of penetrating a container wall, producing a water mist inside the container when connected to the fire main. The Lance is a perfect way to fight container fires safely.

What is the action for a fire in cargo hold? ›

The initial action for dealing with a fire in a cargo hold will be the same regardless of whether a ship is at sea or in port. Upon discovering such a fire, either visually or through the smoke detector, the Emergency Alarm must be sounded at once and the Emergency Party mustered.

What temperature do container fires burn at? ›

Again, containers may be a carring range of materials, including some plastics that have an auto-ignition temperature in the range of 400° C (752° F) to 500° C (932° F) to materials such as paper, fiber board and woods that can have an auto-ignition temperature in the 100° C (212° F) to 150° C (302° F) range.

What is the best action taken when fire arises in port? ›

Actions To Take In Case Of Fire –

Scream 'FIRE' loud to alert everyone around many times. Sound the fire alarm from the call point which will be somewhere near to you. This will alert everybody to proceed to stations and for the authorities to be informed of the incident.

What 4 actions would you take in the event of a fire? ›

What To Do if a Fire Starts
  • Know how to safely operate a fire extinguisher.
  • Remember to GET OUT, STAY OUT and CALL 9-1-1 or your local emergency phone number.
  • Yell "Fire!" several times and go outside right away. ...
  • If closed doors or handles are warm or smoke blocks your primary escape route, use your second way out.

What actions can you take to fight a fire? ›

Remember the acronym PASS:
  • P – Pull the pin that unlocks the operating handle.
  • A – Aim the extinguisher low at the base of the fire.
  • S – Squeeze the lever on the extinguisher to discharge the agent.

What action should be taken immediately after a fire has been extinguished in ship? ›

After The Fire Has Been Extinguished, Precautions Should Be Taken Against Spontaneous Re-ignition. Personnel, Unless Wearing Breathing Apparatus, Should Not Re-enter A Space In Which A Fire Has Occurred Before It Has Been Fully Ventilated.

What action should be taken immediately after fire has been extinguished? ›

After the fire has been completely extinguished: Report used extinguishers immediately. Fill out the Fire Incident Form to notify the Fire Marshal of the incident.

What is the first immediate action on sighting a fire onboard ship? ›

In case of fire, raise the Fire/General alarm as soon as possible. Try to stop fire and if it is not possible, muster according to the Fire Muster List.

At what temp does fire start? ›

Wood placed in an oven at 700°F. catches fire almost immediately. At oven temperatures of 450°-500°F., the wood gradually chars and usually ignites after several hours.

What temperature is a 40ft container? ›

These 20ft (6m) and 40ft (12m) containers are 2.4m wide and run on three phase (380 – 460v) power and can keep the contents at a consistent temperature ranging between -25°C and +25°C.

What is the minimum temp for fire? ›

The SPC fire weather verification scheme uses a minimum temperature threshold of 60 F nationwide as a cutoff for consideration for a Critical/Extremely Critical Fire Weather Area.

What is the safest action if you need to evacuate during a fire? ›

Go to the nearest exit or stairwell: If the nearest exit is blocked by fire, heat, or smoke, go to another exit. Always use an exit stairwell to evacuate from upper floors, never an elevator. Elevator shafts can fill with smoke or the power could fail causing you to become trapped.

What are the three techniques used to fight fires? ›

Firefighters control a fire's spread (or put it out) by removing one of the three ingredients fire needs to burn: heat, oxygen, or fuel. They remove heat by applying water or fire retardant on the ground (using pumps or special wildland fire engines) or by air (using helicopters/airplanes).

What is the fire safety policy? ›

What is a fire safety policy? A fire safety policy is a document shared with all employees, and anyone else working for you, to outline potential dangers, how to avoid risks, and what to do if a fire breaks out.

What is the priority sequence of actions when responding to a fire? ›

RACE: Remove, Alarm, Confine and Extinguish or Evacuate

This easy to remember acronym is our University procedure in the case of a fire. Particularly in the hospital, every staff member is trained to recognize and respond appropriately in the case of a fire using this term.

What is the first rule in fire safety? ›

Rules for Fighting Fires. SOUND THE ALARM. If you discover or suspect a fire, sound the building fire alarm. If there is no alarm in the building, warn the other occupants by knocking on doors and shouting as you leave.

What is one thing you should never do when fighting a fire? ›

Never fight a fire:

If the fire is spreading beyond the spot where it started. If you can't fight the fire with your back to an escape exit. If the fire can block your only escape.

How do you fight fire safely? ›

Extinguishing a fire the right way!
  1. Attack a fire in the direction of the wind.
  2. Extinguish liquid fires and fires caused by dripping substances from the top down.
  3. Extinguish wall fires from the bottom up.
  4. Use several fire extinguishers at once, not one after another.
  5. Take account of any back draft.

How do you extinguish a large fire in a container? ›

If the fire is contained in a beaker or a small vessel, it can often be extinguished by covering the vessel with a wire gauze or addition of sand or dry ice. If the fire is in a larger vessel or has spread, dry ice is very effective. Dry chemical extinguisher is also useful.

How do you extinguish a fire in a small container? ›

Extinguish small fires in a container by covering and cutting off the oxygen with a solid ceramic matte. If anyone's hair or clothing catches on fire, immediately try to smother the flames with a wool fireblanket, or cotton clothing. Do not ever try to smother flames with nylon clothing: it could melt onto the skin.

What is the best way to put out a fire in a small container? ›

Cover the Pot with a Metal Lid - Fire cannot exist in the absence of oxygen. With the lid on (and the heat off), the fire should quickly consume all the oxygen and put itself out. Use a metal lid since glass will shatter.

What is the fixed fire extinguishing system used in container ships? ›

Most container ships have carbon di oxide (CO2) as fixed firefighting media. This normally cuts off the oxygen supply to the fire thereby smothering it.

What is the fixed fire extinguishing system used in container ship cargo hold? ›

The most frequently used system for fighting fire in cargo holds of a general cargo ship is the Co2 flooding system. The Co2 system consists of a fire detection system (smoke detectors) and an alarm system, along with Co2 cylinders.

What causes container fires? ›

The most common cause of container fire continues to be misdeclaration of container cargo. This could be assigned to either clerical errors or to nefarious activities, but in both cases can lead to huge destructions of property and a loss of life. Another cause could be improper container storage.

How do you extinguish a small fire in a beaker or flask? ›

If a fire begins and is confined in an open container such as a beaker, it can usually be extinguished simply by covering the top of the beaker to remove the source of oxygen. Be careful to avoid spreading a confined fire by blasting it with a fire extinguisher.

How do you put out a fire step by step? ›

First, drown the campfire with water! Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil. Scrape all partially-burned sticks and logs to make sure all the hot embers are off them. Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.

What is the fastest way to put out a fire? ›

If you've flamed up something in the skillet, use the lid (or a lid of larger size) to clap on quickly and smother it. This is the quickest and most effective way of stopping the fire.

How long does it take to put out a fire? ›

Anywhere from 30 seconds to a week. Depends on the structure, type and extent of fire. A fully involved 1 story frame structure can usually have a fire knocked down within a few minutes if the fire department can access the fire, and has an adequate water supply.

What maneuver should be carried out in case of a fire onboard a ship? ›

In case of fire, raise the Fire/General alarm as soon as possible. Try to stop fire and if it is not possible, muster according to the Fire Muster List.

How do you put out a big fire without water? ›

No water? No problem. You can try using dirt or sand to put out a fire that has died down. With a shovel, scoop dry sand or dirt into your pit to extinguish the fire.

Which three of the following are methods of fire prevention and control? ›

The following are examples of control measures. Fire detection devices, eg heat sensors and smoke alarms. Fire warning devices, eg fire alarms. Emergency fire-fighting equipment, eg extinguishers and fire blankets.

What is the first thing you should do if you discover a fire? ›

The priority on discovery of a fire must be to evacuate the premises. If a fire is known to be in a specific room and it is safe to do so, then the door to the room should be closed to slow down the spread of fire. Under no circumstances should personal safety or the safety of others be compromised.


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