The risk of shipboard fire may have increased as more lithium-battery powered devices find their way on board and as a result of vessels being left unattended in lay-up. Establishing procedures to manage such risks can save money, and lives
Recent deadly incidents offshore India and the US serve as stark reminders of the dangers posed by shipboard fires.
In August, footage from the Indian Coast Guard showed the stern of anchor-handling tug supply (AHTS) Coastal Jaguar wreathed in flames and billowing thick black smoke, as coast guard crew picked up survivors in lifejackets who had jumped into the water.
Four seafarers lost their lives in the incident, with one crew member known to have died immediately, one reported missing and later found dead and two of those picked up later succumbing to their injuries.
In September commercial diving boat Conception caught fire and sank off Santa Cruz Island, California. Five crew members survived but 34 passengers and one crew member, all of whom were in belowdeck sleeping quarters at the time of the fire, died.
In both cases, the exact cause of the fire remains unknown, with investigations ongoing in the relative jurisdictions where the incidents took place.
More recently, a single day – Monday October 14 – saw fires on two North Sea oil platforms result in the hospitalisation of three workers. In one incident, a worker suffered an arm injury after a small fire on the Taqa-operated Tern Alpha installation, located 105 miles northeast of Shetland, and was airlifted to the Gilbert Bain hospital in Lerwick for treatment. On the same day, two workers from the Heather Alpha platform, 245 miles northeast of Aberdeen, were evacuated to the same hospital after another small fire.
The risk of fire can come from something as seemingly insignificant as a lithium battery-powered device being left unattended, as an examination of the International Marine Contractors’ Association’s Safety Flashes shows.
In one Safety Flash, details were shared of an incident where a lithium battery left unattended while charging resulted in a fire. A Portable Helicopter Start Power Unit containing a lithium battery was left in an admin office connected to a charging pack. While the unit had been maintained in accordance with a planned maintenance regime and had displayed no signs of defect, it is suspected that a failure in the unit or charger resulted in overheating. The reporting member has been in contact with the manufacturer and suspects a component in the charger failed, IMCA notes.
In this incident, the unit and charger were safely removed and doused with fire hoses, preventing the situation from escalating and ensuring no injuries to personnel. Nonetheless, the incident highlights the risks associated with lithium batteries; IMCA’s Safety Flash also notes this applies to personal devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
And even nominally unmanned vessels can be at risk. With a large proportion of the global OSV fleet still in layup, a Marine Safety Alert form the US Coast Guard serves as a timely reminder that a vessel does not need to be engaged in active operations to be at risk of fire.
The alert, For want of a watchman the ship was lost, concerns a bulker laid up for the winter that suffered a catastrophic fire that burned for more than 35 hours.
A working crew had been onboard performing welding in the ballast tanks and conveyor tunnel areas of the vessel on the day of the fire, with the last worker departing the vessel at 18:00. Two hours later at 20:00, a watchman on a nearby vessel observed the fire. Normally the vessel had its own ship’s watchman onboard, but the watchman had departed for the weekend earlier on the day of the fire.
The watchman’s 911 call was delayed by a further 45 minutes as he first called contractors before contacting the emergency services, the Coast Guard advisory says. Local fire services responded and sought to cool the ship’s hull as well as those of others nearby, but efforts were hindered due to water hydrants being frozen.
All in all, the fire burned for more than 35 hours within the upper engine room spaces, moving up into the entire superstructure and onto the self-unloading belt throughout the port and starboard conveyor tunnels, as well as onto the cargo boom belt above the main deck.
Investigators were unable to access the vessel until 11 days after the incident. No specific source of the fire was identified, but the investigators concluded it had started in the machine shop area of the vessel, where numerous electric heaters had been energised for weeks.
The Coast Guard issues recommendations for owners and operators of all vessels in lay-up, with a particular focus on those using shore power and on which work is being performed: