Transport & Logistics mode

The resurgence of serious fires on board ships requires a response

December 16 2019

2019 will remain a year that has been marked by a significant increase in fires on board container ships, as 9 major fires were recorded at sea, compared to only one in 2018. A situation with far-reaching consequences, that requires a response from the shipping community.

Container fires are not an unusual occurence. According to an article from the insurance company Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), on average, there is one incident every 60 days, citing TT Club data. However, according to Allianz, there is a new development, an increase in losses, in particular due to the difficulty of adapting fire-fighting resources and the complexity of rescues on board the new generation of mega container ships (even if the latter are far from being the only ones involved, as has been seen by the latest major incidents). “Insurers have highlighted this as a growing risk in recent years and, sadly, this has proven correct. This is a serious and concerning trend. While there have been discussions within the shipping industry, we have yet to see concrete steps to tackle this risk as yet”, explains Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS, in the same article.

The stakes are high. This situation is indeed a serious threat not only in terms of human lives, but also in terms of economic and environmental impact. The risks linked to a significant surge in insurance premiums are very real, in a market that is already under pressure as almost all shipping lines are facing problems finding a financial equilibrium.

Hazardous materials are at the heart of the problem

The maritime community is beginning to tackle the problem head on. In October, the International Union of Marine Insurers (IUMI), in collaboration with the German flag state, requested the support of other States and stakeholders to ensure that the issue of fires aboard ships be included in the 2020 agenda of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In 2017, the IUMI published a report containing recommendations, which could serve as a basis for an IMO proposal.

With regard to dangerous goods, which is often the cause of accidents, the CINS (Cargo Incident Notification System) has just published a guide to good practices for stowage of dangerous goods containers, and as such, are concentrating on an educational approach.

Although the studies are not made public, we know from initial observations that these fires often have a common origin inside the containers themselves. Some shippers clearly do not scrupulously adhere to the SOLAS/IMDG regulations in force.

Here are some key points to take away from the CINS document:

  • Dangerous Goods which cannot be extinguished by either water or CO2 should be stowed on deck.
  • Limited Quantities must be redefined and more carefully taken into consideration during stuffing.
  • Class 9 (miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles) must be redefined, as this is too often used as a "catch-all" category.
  • The cross classification between the dangerous goods class (IMDG) and the location on board (RZ from 0 to 5) must be applied to the letter to enable optimal stowage for the nautical risk. (see p.8 of the CINS document).

The major fires in 2019

January 3: Yantian Express (7,500 TEU ship owned by Hapag-Lloyd )

January 31: APL Vancouver (9,600 TEU vessel operated by APL)

February 13: E.R. Kobe (5,700 TEU container ship)

March 10: Grande America (Con-Ro ship)

May 24: KMTC Hong Kong (1,585 TEU container ship belonging to the South Korean company KMTC)

August 9: APL Le Havre

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Expert in Ocean shipping for 25 years, Jerome puts all his knowledge of the industry to contribution for Upply. Ship captain at heart, he has written the English-French Lexicon of Containerized Shipping (Paris: CELSE, 2001).