Our seafarers deserve action on DG fires

05 Jun 2019 - Chris Jones

Our seafarers deserve action on DG fires

Have you ever had to fight a fire at sea? I’d hope that very few people have had to do so. It is one of the most terrifying situations to be involved in. Imagine if part of your house was on fire and the only way of extinguishing it was by the occupants alone. No fire brigade, no external help; just you and whatever equipment you happen to have.

Fires at sea have always been a terrible threat and a seafarer’s worst nightmare. The minimal training combined with a ship’s basic firefighting inventory means most vessels are generally ill-equipped to tackle anything larger than small carboniferous fires.

This has been made tragically evident this year with the number of dangerous goods (DG) related fires onboard ships. Whilst the crew’s efforts to bring these fires under control and prevent loss of the vessel is commendable, they simply should not have been put in the situation in the first place.

From the vessel side, the crew have very little input into whether DG containers are loaded or not. Provided the containers have the correct markings, the correct manifests and are loaded in the correct position in a container fit for carriage - they likely meet the requirements of the shipping companies safety management system and can be loaded.

Properly marked and manifested DG containers give the vessel a fighting chance should a fire or spillage occur. Not an ‘even chance’ by any means, but at least the crew will know what substances they are dealing with and can determine the level of risk. Could they fight it or are the substances so volatile that the risk is too high?

It is why the IMDG code has been iterated repeatedly since its introduction in the 1960s. Properly packaged and manifested dangerous goods can be carried safely onboard merchant ships. What happens if a DG container is mis-declared (or hazardous contents not even declared at all) and accepted for carriage as a general container?

Provided the mis-declared container behaves like a general container, then the ship, shipper and shipping company are all lucky. Nothing untoward occurs and the cargo arrives at its destination. However, we’ve all seen what happens when the luck runs out.

Shipping companies are angry about the frequency and severity of container ship fires, and rightly so. Apart from the incalculable human cost, the financial cost of a capital asset being damaged by fire is felt in both time and money. The Maersk Honam fire, for example, has put a brand new vessel out of action for over a year, with the general average claims expected to be one of the largest on record.

As a technology company, we’d love to be able to say that there is a technological solution to this issue, but as with most problems in the shipping industry, it is a process change that is necessary.
Shippers need more oversight and stiffer penalties when they are found to be flaunting a carriers’ condition of carriage. Spot checks of cargoes at the port of loading are touted as an option, similar to how VGM checks were initially adopted.

From the vessels’ side, there is little more that can be done that isn’t being done already. Most ships require a crewmember to be present when loading DG containers to ensure they are loaded in the correct position with the correct placards.

Whilst technology is not yet a solution, it should be an aid to better carriage of DG cargoes. Most stowage planning software integrates DG segregation rules, and apps such as Exis Technologies Hazcheck DGL Lite can confirm and dispel suspicions of incorrect placards. At Intelligent Cargo Systems, we’re augmenting our cargo operations monitoring platform CargoMate to allow the crew to notify the carrier immediately if there is a DG discrepancy (more to come on this later this year).

Technology or not, container ship fires demand our attention. We owe it to our seafarers to fix this, or it will be a shame that the industry will have to carry like on-load lifeboat hook testing or the rapidly growing seafarer mental health crisis.
I vividly remember being suited up in a firefighters outfit with breathing apparatus pressurised, waiting for the order from the Master to enter a side-passageway thick with heat and black smoke. Thankfully, that situation was resolved before we made the entry, but all I remember thinking was “I never want to do this for real”.

©Intelligent Cargo Systems 2019