Fires on vessels remain one of the biggest safety issues for the shipping industry, as evidenced by a significant increase in recent incidents, according to Allianz’s Safety and Shipping Review 2023.
The most recent incident is the ongoing fire aboard the Fremantle Highway, a roll-on roll-of (ro-ro) vessel which caught fire this week off the Dutch while shipping about 3000 vehicles from Germany to Egypt (see lead story for today, 27 July).
Allianz reports that fire was the second top cause of loss for shipping vessels last year (after foundering), with eight vessels lost and more than 200 incidents reported – the highest for a decade.
Allianz Commercial, which analyses reported shipping losses and incidents involving ships larger than 100 gross tons, says its latest report shows that while shipping losses declined by 65% over the past decade (38 vessels in 2022 compared with over 100 in 2013), fire incidents have not followed the same trajectory.
Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at Allianz Commercial, highlighted some factors driving this trend.
“We continue to see major events involving large container ships, car carriers, and ro-ro vessels, for example. There were over 200 reported fire incidents during 2022 alone (209) – the highest total for a decade.
“Meanwhile, 64 ships have been lost to fires in the past five years,” he said.
He said an analysis of 250 000 marine insurance industry claims shows fire is also the most expensive cause of loss, accounting for 18% of the value of all claims analysed.
“Catastrophic fires on large vessels typically begin with combustible cargo, which then spreads rapidly and outpaces the firefighting capabilities of the crew. The size and design of large vessels make fire detection and fighting more challenging, and once the crew is forced to abandon ship, emergency response and salvage operations become more complex and expensive, increasing the risk of a major or total loss,” he said.
“Fires need to be contained quickly, yet it may take several hours to get to the base of a fire on a large vessel.”
Misdeclaration of cargo is a major problem, he pointed out.
“Industry reporting systems attribute around 25% of all serious incidents onboard container ships to mis-declared dangerous goods, such as chemicals, batteries, and charcoal, although many believe this number to be higher.
“Failure to properly declare, document and pack hazardous cargo can contribute to blazes or hamper firefighting efforts. Labelling cargo as dangerous is more expensive. Therefore, some companies try to circumvent this by labelling fireworks as toys or lithium-ion batteries (Li-Ion) as computer parts, for example,” he said.
There have been several incidents in recent years where Li-Ion batteries have been reported as contributing to fires on vessels.
Khanna said many of these batteries are safely transported daily, but fire risks are present, especially if batteries are used or defective, damaged or improperly stored, packaged, handled or labelled.
“The main hazards are fire, explosion, and ‘thermal runaway’, a rapid self-heating fire that can cause an explosion. They can also produce irritating, corrosive, or poisonous gases that cause an explosion in a confined space. The main causes of Li-Ion fires are substandard manufacturing or damaged battery cells or devices, overcharging, and short-circuiting,” he said.
A fire on board car carrier Felicity Ace in February 2022 led to the vessel sinking in the Atlantic Ocean, along with its cargo of 4 000 vehicles. Li-Ion batteries were cited as being a factor in keeping the fire ablaze.
The Höegh Xiamen caught fire in June 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida, resulting in the loss of the vessel and its cargo of 2 420 used vehicles. An improperly disconnected battery in a used vehicle led to the fire, according to the official investigation.
Khanna added that most ships lack suitable fire protection, firefighting capabilities, and detection systems, which have been made more difficult by the dramatic increase in ship size – container-carrying capacity has doubled in the last 20 years.