The fire fighting capabilities of container ships must be addressed as they have not kept pace with increasing vessel sizes, writes Viking Life-Saving Equipment product manager trade, Lasse Boesen
Container fires on board very large container ships have been sufficiently frequent in the last 12 months for the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) to call for a review of firefighting equipment on board existing vessels.
In fact, as I write, it is only a matter of days since another container fire broke out on board a 10,000-TEU capacity ship in transit between Malaysia and India. Having been entered on the ship’s manifest as ‘spare parts and accessories’, the combustible cargo turned out to be a misdeclared batch of lithium batteries, which are considered dangerous goods due to their corrosive character.
In this case, which could arguably have developed into a much more serious incident, the fire broke out in a container below deck and was suppressed by filling the entire cargo hold with CO2. Had the misdeclared cargo been stowed above deck, however, the blaze would have had to be dealt with on an individual container basis. As recent fires have demonstrated, the higher up the stack the container is, the harder it is for crew to extinguish the blaze.
In short, while the ultra large container ship (ULCS) may bring welcome economies of scale, fire-fighting capabilities on board have not kept pace with the increasing vessel sizes. This creates a serious risk for crew, as well as for cargo owners, shipowners and insurers: due to vessel size, only a small number of ports can provide a ULCS with safe refuge.
Following a flurry of fires on board large container ships in 2018-2019, IUMI Policy Forum chair Helle Hammer described fire-fighting capabilities on board container ships today as “deficient”. She called for stakeholders to work together and encourage IMO to strengthen fire protection in cargo areas, amend SOLAS by including active/passive fire protection on new container ships and consider addressing firefighting equipment on existing container vessels.
These sentiments are surely welcome but, as the combustion of misdeclared lithium batteries on board the 10,000-TEU ship showed in January, this is an issue that demands direct action rather than a call to action.
It is for this reason that, once it had identified and tested the potential of the HydroPen container fire-fighting system devised by start-up Rosenby Engineering, Viking Life-Saving made plans and investment to bring it to market as quickly as possible.
Based on an innovative drilling and spraying machine mounted on a telescopic arm to fight fires successfully high up in the stack, the HydroPen unit is attached to existing ship hoses and raised into position by a single crew member. Powered by water pressure alone, the HydroPen drills through the container door before switching to spray mode to extinguish the fire with water, foam or CO2 as required.
Quickly, leading operators and owners of large container ships have got the message. V.Ships Hamburg, for example, recently entrusted its fleet of 45 container vessels to the HydroPen system. In a welcome endorsement, group managing director Franck Kayser commented “HydroPen is an easy to use but ground-breaking system that addresses a specific industry concern. Its adoption fleetwide aligns with our ‘safety first’ commitment.”
There have been other orders, while HydroPen has also been widely trialled and was even called into action on board one of the trial vessels, where it successfully extinguished a real fire. Just before the turn of the year, Viking also secured a second sizeable order for the solution that we expect to attract considerable attention in the market, given the name involved.
In February, Viking will host a new demonstration of HydroPen in Singapore to capitalise on interest from owners in Asia, while a similar presentation is planned in Germany.