Ship fires a maritime threat

Ship fires are a threat to maritime safety in Europe. The highest risk is found on roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) passenger ships, because each ship could be carrying more than 1,000 people, says a risk assessment on ship fires produced by the Finnish Border Guard and Finnish Transport Safety Agency. The report was produced for the Baltic Sea Maritime Incident Response Group (Baltic Sea MIRG) project.

The report noted that preventing ship fires was difficult, and minimizing their consequences was also problematic. About 6% of ro-ro passenger ship fires each year cause loss of life or serious injury.

The most serious of fires have been on ro-ro passenger ships. In 1990, 159 people died in a ship fire aboard the Scandinavian Star. That event “played a significant role in the IMO’s decision to launch preparations for the ISM Code. When it came into force, safety management systems became compulsory for many operators and vessels. In seafaring, it is quite typical for significant safety-enhancing measures to be launched in the wake of catastrophes rather than on the basis of risk assessments”, noted the report.

There were 74 ship fires in European sea areas in 2014, 10 of which were serious.  There were 799 ship fires during the period 2004–2014, 80 of which were serious. In December 2014, 11 people died and many more injured as a result of a fire on ro-ro passenger ship Norman Atlantic.

In 2008, 10 people were killed and several injured after an explosion aboard the general cargo ship Enisey. The explosion was caused by welding sparks while the ship was docked.  In 2008, eight people were killed and several injured after an explosion aboard the gas carrier Friendshipgas.

Ship fires have increased in the period 2004-2014 among general cargo ships, ro-ro passenger ships and cruise ships.

Since there has been a significant reduction in the number of ship passengers in Europe in recent years, it can be assumed that a greater number of fires per vessel are occurring aboard ro-ro passenger ships. The number and severity of fires aboard oil tankers, chemical tankers and fishing vessels have all decreased.’

The Finnish Safety Investigation Authority said that attitude plays a key role in fire prevention. This can often be seen in the thorough performance of basic procedures, such as keeping areas clean and tidy and maintaining equipment in proper working order.

‘However, preventing fires can be difficult, as there are such a wide range of potential causes, from electrical faults to a variety of human activities. It is therefore impossible to prepare for all eventualities. This is why specific causes of fire are not always significant with regard to the overall safety of a vessel. Instead, it is often easier to influence the prompt detection of fires and their effective extinguishment, and these factors therefore play a key role in minimizing fire damage aboard vessels.’

In 2013, the volume of seaborne trade at European ports totalled 3,716 million tons. Liquid bulk cargo accounted for the largest proportion of this, at 38%. The next most significant product groups were solid bulk cargo, containers, and multimodal ro-ro transports. Exports accounted for 1,472 million tons of all seaborne trade, and imports for 2,244 million tons

Globally, European ports accounted for 17% of exports and 21% of imports.