Structure and fire-fighting efforts a concern in NZ fishing vessel fire

Issues with the structure of fishing vessel Dong Won 701 and crew firefighting efforts after she caught fire have been cited by the New Zealand Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) in its report into the accommodation fire on board the vessel in April 2018.

The fire began around or in a rubbish bin next to a desk in the First Engineer’s cabin on the officers’ deck while the vessel was moored at the port of Timaru.

The crew tried but failed to extinguish the fire, which eventually took eight days for Fire and Emergency NZ to extinguish. It destroyed the accommodation structure on the vessel, hospitalizing three crew members and one firefighter.

The fire was too intense and sustained for it to be possible to state conclusively what caused it.

The fire spread quickly because the automatic fire alarm did not trigger, and the materials used in the construction of the accommodation space were not fire-resistant., the TAIC found.

Although the structural fire integrity of the Dong Won 701 complied with the relevant Maritime Rule, it did not meet contemporary standards, and this was a factor in the speed and intensity with which the fire spread, the TAIC said.

When the fire became known to the crew, they failed to sound the alarm. There firefighting was termed inefficient, uncoordinated and as failing to follow good industry practice. Only nine of the 44 crew members were on board to initially contain and fight the fire, the TAIC said.

A deck officer with a portable fire extinguisher and an engine room rating attempted to fight the fire. The smoke forced them to retreat down the passageway through an exit door to an open deck at the back of the accommodation space. They then left both the first engineer’s cabin door and the exit door to the outside deck open, because they thought this would help clear smoke from the cabin and passageway.

The crew attempted to rig a ship’s fire hose to fight the fire, but could not pressurize the fire hose because they were unable to get the emergency fire pump to deliver water.

Although the crew responsible for testing the fire alarm system said that the fire alarms were tested, they proved unable to describe to the investigators anything that resembled a routine regime for checking that all components of the fire alarm system were functional.

TAIC recommended that ship crews routinely test safety-critical systems such as fire detection and alarm systems. In the event of a fire the ship’s general alarm should be used to alert crew as quickly as possible and to help prevent the fire spreading, close all openings that can allow air to feed or be drawn into the location of the fire.

TAIC said that, of 63 New Zealand-flagged fishing ships operating in New Zealand waters:

  • Inconsistencies in the application of Rule 40D may have resulted in up to 12 fishing vessels operating under the New Zealand Flag not complying fully with the relevant safety standards.
  • A further 50 fishing vessels had been afforded ‘grandfather’ rights that would allow them to operate indefinitely without meeting contemporary safety standards under the current Maritime Rules.
  • If a vessel’s structural fire protection did not meet current minimum standards, a fire might spread more quickly. On such a vessel, the crew might not be as safe as they would be on a newer vessel constructed to newer standards.

TAIC recommended that Maritime NZ do what it can to make post-2004 fishing vessels comply with as many of the Rule 40D design, construction and equipment standards as was reasonable and practicable.

TAIC also recommended that Maritime NZ and the Ministry of Transport together amend Rule 40D to so that aging fishing vessels could not operate in perpetuity without having to meet contemporary safety standards.