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Preventing fires on container ships

| Aug 3, 2020 | Maritime Law |

Last month’s fire on the Navy ship Bonhomme Richard was, unfortunately, nothing new for either the Navy or California’s coastal waters. If they know what caused the fire on the amphibious assault ship, they have yet to tell the public. They have, however, announced a new emphasis on fire safety.

For those in the container shipping industry, you know that the cause is probably slightly different from the causes of container ship fires. Nevertheless, it serves as a good reminder to consider ways to prevent fires on all types of ships, especially container ships.

Of course you want your crew and cargo to reach its destination safely, but what can you do to help make sure that happens? Container ships face some unique challenges, especially out on the open sea.

Properly marking dangerous goods

Too often, misdeclared hazardous cargo ends up as a factor in dangerous ship fires. The International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code covers the handling of hazardous cargo. Some feel the IMDG does not go quite far enough and encourage shippers to take extra steps toward safety. The American Bureau of Shipping leads a workshop on this topic. They encourage shippers to store dangerous goods away from engine rooms and crew quarters.

The real problem is that once the materials are inside the cargo container, the crew can no longer know what is inside. Companies will attempt to avoid higher rates for hazardous cargo by mislabeling it. In some countries, including the U.S., authorities will open containers and penalize violations, not all countries do this.

Updated firefighting capabilities

Today’s regulations regarding firefighting equipment required for shipping vessels may be outdated and meant for smaller ships than we use today. Older equipment like CO2 deployment systems are no longer effective. Although regulations have been updated, some say they still don’t work on today’s ships.

The good news is that companies and organizations are working on solutions and improvements all the time. New technology may provide answers, but so might using old technology in new ways. One recommendation is separating sections with water curtains. Another is installing infrared cameras and thermal systems to detect containers that are reaching a high temperature.

Cost for these measures depends on whether you are retrofitting an older ship or installing them on a new build. New builds will be significantly more cost-effective than retrofitting. No matter what type of fleet you have, safety is always a top concern, and preventing fires will require a multi-pronged approach.