Huge potential to improve fire safety on container ships

Published: 20.07.21

Fires on container ships can lead to loss of both life and vast quantities of material assets. Nevertheless, expertise in this area appears to be somewhat lacking.

Container ships have grown exponentially in size in recent years, while crews have shrunk. Neither have technical solutions and regulations in the area followed the dimensional growth of modern ships. There is a poor overview of what is being shipped, which prevents potentially flammable cargo from being placed in appropriate locations on the ship, as well as a lack of certainty that appropriate fire safety systems are installed. Lack of expertise or simple carelessness can mean that freight becomes mixed when inside containers. As a result, flammable materials that will not combust when stored in isolation end up being stored with materials that can easily ignite.

These are some of the many challenges that DBI (The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology) discovered when it conducted the CONTAIN project.

- Incidents are rare, but the extent of injuries is potentially enormous, with loss of both human lives and valuable assets worth many millions of Danish kroner. There is also very limited expertise in this area. The aim of the project was to give us insight into the nature of fires in container ship cargo holds. We also examined technical, human and organisational aspects, says Thomas Hulin, project manager at DBI.

Is the crew able to fight fires?

Container freight is a complex sector, which is precisely part of the problem. The sector involves numerous stakeholders: customers, forwarding companies, shipping companies, port authorities, international classification companies and insurance companies, who each consider their own contributions, while there is little knowledge about the issue as a whole.

The project identified various issues that were of interest. One thing that came to light was a degree of uncertainty as to whether crews were suitably equipped to fight fires on board their ships. Many container ship cargo hold fires would be challenging even for professional firefighting teams on shore.

- When a container ship caught fire in Hamburg in September 2016, it took 100 firefighters from local emergency services to bring the fire under control. This is impossible when a ship is at sea, which raises the question of what can be demanded and expected of increasingly smaller crews, who are not even professional firefighters. There is also the question of when a crew should give up attempts to fight a fire and evacuate the ship, as there are currently no regulations for such scenarios today, says Alexander Kleiman, a project manager at DBI.

Ships are increasing in size

Regulations in this sector have also not followed the development that ships continue to increase in size.

- Existing fire safety regulations and the use of fire safety systems are based on the needs of smaller ships and do not have the same effect on ships of the sizes we see today. Fire extinguishing systems, for example, are often intended to extinguish fires in a specific type of cargo and not suitable for other types of fires. We see that a lot of cargo is not correctly declared or is mixed with other types of cargo that the fire extinguishing system is not effective against, says Alexander Kleiman.

At the same time, fire extinguishing systems are often dimensioned to simply limit the spread of the fire, as the crew attempts to extinguish it. This gives rise to a consideration of whether the strategy for the future could be to isolate a fire from the rest of the ship and either let it burn out or wait for assistance rather than fighting it with possible loss of life as a result.

Fire spread after 17 minutes

In connection with the CONTAIN project, DBI has also tested how containers behave in the event of a fire and how fire spreads from container to container. Our tests show that a fire in a container can spread through the door after 17 minutes, that a burning container can ignite the floor of a container above after 20 minutes, and that radiated heat can ignite the contents of adjacent containers.

- We also saw that the rubber container door seals caused drippage of burning droplets when the fire broke through, which can also cause a fire to spread. We are still in the early phase of the collection of technical knowledge about this area, but the knowledge we gain will be highly valuable, particularly with regard to where fire detection and extinguishing systems should be located, says Thomas Hulin.

Simulations have also been produced from the fire test data about how a fire spreads in a below-deck cargo hold full of stacked containers.

- We can use data to simulate and investigate the effect of various fire extinguishing systems which can, in the long term, also include factors such as construction statics and how they are affected by a fire. There is no tradition for this type of 'fire safety engineering' when building container ships, but it is a discipline that has the potential to offer great opportunities to improve fire safety, says Thomas Hulin.

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Carsten Møller
Research and Innovation Consultant

+45 24 65 01 88