The overwhelming evidence suggests that most engineroom fires are accidents waiting to happen. Selwyn Parker considers how best to mitigate the risks
Fires on board ships pose special dangers compared with conflagrations on terra firma. Not only is it more difficult for crew and passengers to escape from fires, it is more challenging to extinguish them, especially when they start in the engineroom.
As maritime consultant Brookes Bell pointed out last year in a study entitled Fire Prevention on board Ships for the marine insurance specialist Shipowners Club: “Unlike a land-based fire, a ship’s crew are not able to walk away from a fire at sea and rely upon the local fire department to extinguish it. With limited resources, crews may be expected to deal with fire incidents that would test even the most experienced of fire-fighters.”
Quite apart from the loss of life, the financial consequences of serious onboard fires, whether they occur in the engineroom or elsewhere, are likely to be substantial. As Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty pointed out in its 2017 review of safety and shipping, the advent of “mega-ships” has raised the stakes.
“Exposures are increasing exponentially,” Allianz warned. “The loss of a large container vessel or passenger ship in environmentally sensitive waters could cost billions of dollars, potentially even resulting in a US$4Bn loss if two large vessels are involved.”
And sure enough, there were three major fires on container ships in 2016 involving the Maersk Karachi, the CCNI Arauco and the Wan Hai 307, followed in early 2017 by the MSC Daniela, which burned for more than a week 120 nautical miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. Hazardous cargo was the culprit in most of these cases but the crews were not able to put the fires out without outside assistance. And that is becoming a concern for operators and insurers alike.
Prevention is best
Meantime, it follows that it is even more important on a ship that every effort is made to avoid fires. “The safety of the vessel and its crew is dependent upon adequate fire prevention measures to avoid the occurrence of such incidents in the first place,” noted Brookes Bell.
Unfortunately, the evidence clearly shows that engineroom fires are all too common – and all too preventable. According to Allianz, fire and explosion accounted for eight of the total losses in all seas in 2016, the latest available year, but there were numerous other less catastrophic outbreaks, mostly in enginerooms. (By far the major cause of total losses is vessels foundering, with 46 ships sinking in 2016.)
And there are also common origins of engineroom incidents. Over 50% of all fires within the engineroom are caused by fuel or lubricating oil leaking onto hot surfaces, according to the Brookes Bell study and oil leaks are often due to the failure of pipes and/or associated fittings.
It goes on to cite a dismaying list of preventable, as well as predictable, reasons for such failures: mechanical fatigue, vibration and pulsations, chafing and fretting, improper securing, damage during maintenance operations, improper repairs, incorrect tightening procedures and finally, the use of poor-quality materials.
International authorities have compiled numerous case studies that corroborate these findings, the most recent being the investigation into the engineroom fire aboard the roro vessel Caribbean Fantasy off Puerto Rico in August 2016. In its report released in June 2018, the US National Transportation Safety Board found a litany of failures following the outbreak of fire in the main engineroom, when the vessel was two miles off the coast of Puerto Rico.
Ignited when fuel sprayed from a leaking flange onto the exhaust manifold on the port main propulsion engine, the fire spread so rapidly that the crew were unable to contain it and the master ordered the Caribbean Fantasy be abandoned. Fortunately, the vessel was close enough to shore for all 511 passengers and crew to be rescued, albeit with several injuries.
However, the ensuing report compiled a series of safety issues that contributed to the loss: machinery maintenance practices were inadequate; the gasket on the high-pressure end flange was of an “improper” type and the material had broken down; bolts inserted into the quick-closing valves, vital safety technology in the event of a fire, had been deliberately wedged open so they could not shut; and the crew had failed to adhere fully to the manufacturer’s maintenance manual.
Further, the crew were not properly trained to deal with a fire. The flag state’s testing organisation, RINA Services, did not adequately inspect the quick-closing valves. The water mist fire-fighting system failed to do its job probably because it was trying to cover too many zones at the same time and lacked enough water. The failure of ventilation dampers to close as they should meant the carbon dioxide-based, fixed fire-fighting system did not work properly.
The NTSB’s damning conclusion read: “Contributing to the fire and the prolonged abandonment effort was the failure of the Panama Maritime Authority and the recognised organisation, RINA Services, to ensure Baja Ferries’ safety management system was functional.”
Leakages are probably the main trigger for engineroom fires – and they are probably the most easily avoided. Many leakages are associated with the wear and tear of relatively cheap items, such as pipes. And nothing more sophisticated than compliance with existing regulations would go a long way to reducing their frequency. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires operators to comply with the International Safety Management (ISM) code, which relates to disciplined maintenance and regular inspection. Among other stipulations, the code mandates that any hot surface with a temperature above 220 C must be insulated. If that is done, the likelihood of a fire being triggered by a leakage of oil or fuel is greatly reduced.
As the NTSB’s report suggests, the Caribbean Fantasy might still be afloat if Baja Ferries had observed the rule book. That is why the agency has urged among other proposals that the US Coast Guard insist that operators perform full-function tests of quick-closing values during inspections and examinations. The NTSB has also told Baja Ferries to conduct worst-case scenario risk assessments for all active water-based fire suppression systems on its vessels.
Minor leaks, major problems
And these measures pay off, as an unnamed shipowner has learned. In a case study released by the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), a minor leak that could have caused a major incident was discovered in December 2017 on an offshore vessel when a crew member was conducting due diligence of the engineroom pipes.
It was an accident waiting to happen. A fuel pipe connection leading to the main engines had failed because of a faulty weld but, as the report noted, “the root cause was believed to be the age of the pipe, an original fit from the vessel’s construction that had incurred natural degradation over a long period of time.” Some adroit repair work by the chief engineer was able to seal the leak and the vessel carried on.
But the lessons learned apply to thousands of vessels with hard-worked, ageing power units. The report cited the importance of “engineers remaining vigilant in their engineroom watch-keeping duties for potential signs of pipe and equipment failure caused by vibration.”
In a useful tip, because these failings cannot always be predicted, IMCA recommends that operators make sure that enginerooms carry spare pipes and temporary repair solutions for low-pressure piping.
Although repair of the immediate problem is obviously top priority, IMCA underlines the importance of follow-up paperwork. When detailed reports, supporting information and photographs were analysed, they revealed the failure was the fourth to have occurred in the fuel supply pipes within four months. At an average of one a month, that is clearly cause for concern.
But if the worst occurs and a fire does break out, there is considerable evidence that some crews are not sufficiently skilled to put it out. For instance, the Shipowners Club, which insures over 32,000 small and specialist vessels in all parts of the world, despatched last year its loss prevention experts to help a member operator concerned with the ability of crews to handle a conflagration. They found problems across the entire fleet, with crews lacking confidence in handling life-saving and fire-fighting equipment. The company is now training up crews.
Allianz weighed in on this issue, concluding in its 2017 report: “Safety and support systems on board container ships have not kept pace with the increased size of vessels and numbers of containers. As a result, there are now serious concerns for the ability of the crew to put out a fire on a container vessel where fire-fighting equipment proves insufficient.”
Clearly though, it is better to forestall fires than to have to put them out. The benefits of prevention fall straight to the bottom line, as Oslo-based maritime software group Bass general manager of product development Haakon Dalan pointed out in a paper in June entitled From cost to profit: a fresh look at safety management. His core argument is that an accident of any kind should be seen as a loss that can be prevented, rather than as a more or less inevitable occurrence that has to be managed. And this requires a company-wide, systematic approach to prevention. (Supporting this argument, the Caribbean Fantasy fire caused about UD$20M in damage and the operator elected to scrap the vessel rather than try and get it back into action.)
“By strengthening management reporting, improvement planning, and actions around a loss causation model, shipowners and ship operators will find it easier to identify improvements that should be prioritised in the company’s action plan for the next six to 12 months,” Mr Dalan suggests. “Without any such system, it is likely that safety management systems will have less effect on the actual operations of the fleet or, worse, may allow such issues to be treated haphazardly.”
Contrary to what many shipowners believe, insurance covers only some of the costs of an engineroom fire. As Mr Dalan argues, the other costs from events that put a vessel out of action should be measured in management time, decreased productivity, loss of goodwill and loss of potential new business among other factors. All of these “eat into company profits.”
Clearly, sticking to the manual and other fixed procedures can save a lot of time and money.
When oil hits hot metal
Between 30-50% of all fires on merchant ships originate in the engineroom and 70% of those fires are triggered by oil leaks, according to research coordinated by IMO.
Given these percentages, it is astonishing that seemingly minor leakages are often left unattended. As recent research by Burgoynes, the international consulting scientists and engineers, on behalf of mutual insurance firm P&I Club, warns: “Fires can result from a failure to attend to small persistent leaks that can spread across machinery surfaces to reach parts operating at a high temperature [as well as] from larger leaks that develop suddenly.”
The report, entitled Risk Focus – Engine Room Fires, identified a multitude of origins of potentially catastrophic leakages, ranging from loose joints and fractured pipes, loose bleed cocks on generator fuel filters, over- or under-tightened pipe unions, fractured bolts or studs, the use of unsuitable seals or gaskets that have deteriorated under heat, and the rupture of high-pressure oil and hydraulic fluid hoses because of mechanical damage or ageing.
Generally, the fixes are remarkably simple. As Burgoynes advises, engineroom crews should stick to correct maintenance procedures and be sure to sheath or otherwise protect the hot metal that can induce fuel to explode. “Any hot surface shielding should also be effectively maintained”, notes the report.
As the report concludes, cladding or shielding of hot surfaces is “possibly the most effective way to prevent engineroom fires [and it is] fairly easy to implement onboard.”
But what exactly is hot? According to Burgoynes, the relevant guideline is the “minimum auto ignition temperature” (MAIT) of the oil. The MAITs of diesel and fuel oil are typically about 250 C, but they can be as low as 225 C. The SOLAS regulations stipulate that all exposed areas as low as 220 C should be protected. Yet the consultancy quotes surveys that reveal around 80% of ships checked had failed to do so.
As a series of case studies conducted by IMO reveals, most engineroom incidents, whether fires or not, result from inattention to such detail. An explosion killed the chief engineer and an apprentice on a passenger/roro vessel because vital pipes were not insulated and four important bolts were loose.
Similarly, a fire broke out on a 45,000 gt vessel when a diesel generator suffered a catastrophic failure, possibly because palm nuts on the connecting rod had been incorrectly tightened during an overhaul.
In another case it came down to what IMO describes as “poor house-keeping”. Inflammable cleaning material, which had been stored unsafely before disposal, led to one fire, while another happened because a flexible fuel hose had been allowed to wear out. And in yet another case, this time a potentially serious engineroom fire when the ship was in port, it was found that the crew had no manuals of any kind that could help them prevent it or handle it.
Another cause of fire is the self-closing valve. These are fitted in fire-prone places, typically between the lower end of an oil tank and its gauge glass, to isolate one from the other. Through the pressure of springs or counter balance gravity, they are designed to be shut during normal operation and only opened so crew can check the contents of the tank.
Yet, as the UK branch of the P&I Club reports, it is by no means uncommon for crews to jam these valves open, using anything from bits of wood, wire or clamps, just to make their work easier. “This is dangerous practice,” warns the UK Club. “If a gauge breaks in a fire, the entire contents of the tank will leak into the burning area, escalating the fire.”