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Insurers call for action to prevent container ship fires

International Union of Marine Insurance says firefighting systems on containerships should be arranged to segregate each ship into compartments where fires can be isolated

Hyundai Fortune was severely damaged in a 2006 fire in the Gulf of Aden. (Source: Wikimedia)

The International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) says firefighting capabilities onboard containerships are deficient and ships should be designed with “fire compartments” to prevent the spread of blazes. IUMI represents 43 national and marine market insurance and reinsurance associations.

“This year has already seen an alarming number of containership fires,” IUMI said in a news release. IUMI pointed to fires on containerships such as the Yantian Express, APL Vancouver, Grande America, E.R. Kobe and KMTC Hong Kong.

The London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants in its Container Insight Weekly listed eight significant fires between Jan. 3 and Aug. 9 this year on container and container/roll-on, roll-off ships.

Notable fires aboard containerships and con-ro vessels in 2019 (Source: Drewry Container Insight Weekly)

In 2018, five crew members died during a fire onboard the Maersk Honam containership.

IUMI called on the industry to strengthen fire protection in the cargo area of container vessels; amend the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) by explicitly including active and/or passive fire protection onboard new container vessels; and consider the need to upgrade firefighting equipment on existing container vessels.

At an Oct. 17-18 conference in Arendal, Norway, organized by the marine insurer and P&I Club Gard, IUMI described the need as urgent.

“We need to see more headway to improve the safety of the crew, the environment, the cargo and the ships themselves,” said Helle Hammer, chair of IUMI’s Policy Forum.

“Mis- and non-declaration of cargo has serious safety implications and is the root cause behind these tragic incidents,” Hammer said. “Better prevention measures must also address the concerning rise in cargo misdeclaration. We are encouraged to see larger carriers already beginning to crack down on this problem.”

A survey of 500 containers at U.S. ports this year by the National Cargo Bureau found problems in a majority of containers inspected, particularly among imports.

Hammer added: “There is agreement among experts that the current means of controlling a fire in the cargo hold are of little effect. The safety objectives set out in SOLAS do not seem to be met, and in light of the various recent casualties the time for action is now.” 

U.S. Navy sailors helped fight a 1998 fire onboard the Sea Land Mariner in the Mediterranean. (Image: DOD). 

IUMI raised concerns about the issue in June at the meeting of the Marine Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Hammer said.

In partnership with Germany, IUMI is “calling for additional support from flag administrations and other stakeholders to bring this issue to IMO’s agenda in 2020.”

A 2017 position paper by IUMI noted, “In remote locations and on the open sea, it can often be hours or even days after a fire has broken out before external assistance arrives. As a rule, only seagoing tugs carry the necessary equipment for effective firefighting. Until they arrive, the crew has to rely on its own resources and the fire can spread extensively.”

IUMI’s paper, which included a proposal from the German Insurance Association, recommended “firefighting systems should be arranged to segregate the ship into fire compartments where the fire can be isolated to prevent it from spreading. Onboard systems could then cool the containers and allow them to burn out in a controlled manner.”

“The sad reality is that we can no longer sit idle,” Hammer said. “Containerships are increasing in size and complexity and this will only exacerbate the problem. This is an issue that affects the entire maritime industry and IUMI is calling for all stakeholders to work together.”

Chris Dupin

Chris Dupin has written about trade and transportation and other business subjects for a variety of publications before joining American Shipper and Freightwaves.