Electric vehicles and car carrier fires

In an analysis of the potential problems associated with the carriage of electric vehicles on vessels, UK Club has said that, as EVs were still relatively new, there was limited available data regarding their potential fire risk. Until reliable data became available it was recommended that owners adopt a cautious policy for the EVs carried onboard.

The Club said that fighting fires in EVs introduced new challenges, and that crews should be made aware of these, and should be specially trained to deal with them. Fires in battery packages were difficult to extinguish, but they could be cooled by use of water. Leakage from a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle was unlikely but, if ignited, would cause a fire with a high heat release rate.

There were number of areas where further investigation was required, such as the ideal state of charge of the batteries, effectiveness of different combinations of fire detection, gas detection and fire-fighting installations in areas which might be used specially for the stowage of electric vehicles.

UK Club said that in future, after further reliable data became available, there might be additional design changes and operational requirements. It was important to keep in mind however, that although the technology driving the cars being carried on ro-ros was changing, the existing ro-ros would probably not undergo any substantial design changes in terms of firefighting capability or fire detection. “Unfortunately, industry regulations are frequently slow to respond to developing market trends, and so the onus will be on the operating procedures for ships and their crew to mitigate this new risk”, the Club said.

UK Club’s Ansuman Ghosh, director of risk assessment, noted that, with the COP26 summit dominating recent news headlines and an increasing requirement globally to use alternative sustainable fuels and minimise carbon emissions, the transporting of EVs was set to soar.

In October this year, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) issued a consultation document regarding the safe carriage of EVs and charging facilities on ro-pax ferries.

“Clearly, these new car types are not inherently unsafe, but, when any new technology is introduced, there is always a potential for unintended consequences, and it is important for every stakeholder to understand the risks to mitigate them effectively”, said Ghosh.

Over recent years there had been numerous fires on vehicle carriers, some of which had been attributed to faults in the vehicles being carried onboard. The outcome of these vehicle carrier fires had, in the main, been significant.

On the MV Honor in February 2017 a fire in the upper vehicle deck was attributed to a fault in the starter motor solenoid in one of the vehicles being transported. The fire led to extensive damage to the Honor’s vehicle decks as well as its cargo of about 5,000 vehicles.

In May 2018 a fire started on the 11th deck of the Auto Banner. The fire was alleged to have been caused by the over-heating of one of the used vehicles on board. The fire was cooled by helicopters dropping water from the air and more than 40 fire engines spraying the hull. The entire crew of 28 were safely evacuated without any reported injuries.

Grande America suffered a fire in March 2018 and subsequently developed a starboard list, causing it to capsize and sink in a depth of around 4,600 metres. The resulting oil spill stretched for 10km and the ship was carrying 2,000 cars and 365 containers, of which 45 were deemed to hold hazardous substances.

Sincerity Ace caught fire in the Pacific on New Year’s Eve 2018 with more than 3,500 cars onboard. The crew had to abandon the vessel, and whilst 16 crew were rescued, five tragically died as a result of the incident.

In June 2019 the Diamond Highway had to be abandoned by its crew in the South China Sea, due to fire, whilst carrying 6,354 cars. Thankfully, all 25 crew were rescued.

Ghosh said that the above incidents served to illustrate the importance of thorough safety procedures and adequate fire-training. “With regards to transportation of EVs, as numbers increase it will no doubt become evident over time where the principal risk factors lie with these vehicles”, he said.

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