A traffic light assessment system and a greater focus on prevention are some of the ways container ship fires could be tackled
The panel debate, co-hosted by LOC, Clyde & Co and Maritime London as part of London International Shipping Week (LISW) on container ship casualties saw experts focus on fires within containers.
A proper risk assessment and a focus on prevention could help solve the problems of container ships fires, according to Clyde & Co head of cargo casualty Jai Sharma.
He told the audience “There are some fundamental problems and practical difficulties in extinguishing the fire… there is very little to stop the fire spreading and no obvious fire breaks.” He pointed out that with a deck fire, there is no division except for the accommodation block to stop the fire spreading.
He added “It is dangerous for the crew to get close to the fire, but firefighting is ineffective without the crew.”
The greater size of ships deployed means there are increased risks due to the number of containers on board. Mr Sharma explained “The risk of carrying a mis-declared container might be around 0.01%.” On a small ship this means it is unlikely that mis-declared cargo will be found.
But he pointed out “But if you have a 20,000 TEU ship, it is quite likely there is going to be misdeclared cargo on every single voyage.” There is also a risk the carrier will fail to identify it properly as dangerous cargo.
Mr Sharma said his opinion was that “prevention should be given more thought. Better steps need to be taken to vet shippers and cargo more closely before it is accepted.”
He suggested that a traffic light assessment system should be adopted to give a proper risk assessment. This could provide a green light to shippers with a consistent record of accurate cargo declarations, while a red light would be reserved to those known to ship hazardous cargoes.
Mr Sharma said “It is not enough to take cargo on trust. We need appropriate firefighting equipment and perhaps need to rethink vessel construction. Perhaps it is time to rethink the way in which we tackle fires and rethink the appetite for risk, the extra cost versus increased safety.”
Elsewhere at the debate, Burgoynes consultancy partner Daniel Jackson highlighted that cargo self-heating was an issue. The decomposition of some cargoes can lead to the release of heat, which cannot be easily dissipated due to proximity of other containers. Once the temperature reaches a critical level, fire can break out and lead to thermal runway.