By Joe Spears
Most candid and experienced mariners will tell you the most feared and dreaded thing at sea is a ship-board fire. This risk goes back to the days of sail with wooden vessels, tarred lines, canvas sails, combustible cargoes and wooden dunnage. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and what has changed? Ship-board fire remains a major marine shipping risk. Recent container ship fires are proving very difficult and costly to extinguish for vessel owners, cargo interests and marine insurers. The vessel fires have many downstream effects. Canada’s economic trade depends on the free flow of goods and services and anything that impacts seamless trade has a major cascading effect on Canada’s export-based economy as well as the importation of goods. This article will examine selected issues caused by these container ship fires and the marine risk that exists. Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan has focused some discussion broadly on the subject.
Recent incidents have highlighted these ship fires. A Company of Master Mariners of Canada newsletter summarizes the present state of affairs on February 3, 2019:
The Vietnamese Coast Guard is responding to a cargo fire aboard the container ship APL VANCOUVER off Vung Ro, Vietnam. It is the latest in a series of container ship cargo fires in recent years, including the well-publicized incidents aboard the YANTIAN EXPRESS, MAERSK HONAM, MAERSK KENSINGTON, WAN HAI 307, MSC FLAMINIA and MSC DANIELA.
According to operator APL, the fire started in one of the VANCOUVER’s cargo bays at about 0430 hours on Thursday morning. Video from the scene indicates that the blaze is centered on a container stack located just forward of the accommodations block.
At about 0330 hours on Friday, the Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel CSB 8005 arrived at the APL Vancouver’s position, and she is now coordinating with the boxship’s crew for ongoing firefighting efforts. Commercial salvors have also been engaged and are en route to the site.
As of February 5, this fire was considered under control.
Off the Dutch and German coast, the mega boxship MSC Zoe lost 279 containers last month. The marine community needs to critically examine the issues that arise from these frequent incidents to identify best practices for prevention. Shipping governance involves both the Coastal and Flag State. Shipping governance, at its core, is based on the principles of risk management. While much attention has focused on response there is a need to look at the causes and take mitigation steps. We have seen the evolution of the safety regime at sea including the International Safety Management (ISM) Code and the latest advances in technology. Still, we are faced with the threat of fire.
The Yantian Express, en route to Halifax, suffered a fire that the crew was unable to extinguish because of sea conditions. With the assistance of four salvage tugs at various times during the month-long response, the vessel was diverted to Freeport, Bahamas. The vessel declared general average and is undergoing a damage assessment and unloading. Close to 200 containers were a total loss with 460 more damaged and requiring inspection prior to discharge.
In the case of the Maersk Honam, a 15,226 TEU containership, fire started on board on March 6, 2018 while in the Arabian Sea. The fire started forward of the bridge and fire burned freely after the crew abandoned ship. Four crew members lost their life. The Indian Coast Guard responded with one of their new cutters, the ICGS Shoor which had powerful fire suppression equipment and two salvage vessels, with a robust firefighting capability, finally extinguishing the six-week stubborn fire. The vessel was towed to an anchorage at the Port of Jebel Ali where the fire was contained. The undamaged cargo was unloaded months later after it was cleared to enter.
The firefighting efforts produced a toxic brew of containments and the Maersk Honan was a complex marine salvage. The fire suppression project was led by Smit Singapore Pte Ltd and Ardent Maritime Netherlands BV. The end result was that the vessel was essentially a total loss. She was cut into two pieces to allow access to the undamaged stern section and was recently towed to Korea for rebuilding. The plan is to attach a new bow section. No doubt, the cost of that incident will be in excess of $500 million when vessel damage, salvage claim, cargo loss and loss of business interruption are considered. Over 1,000 containers were destroyed.
In the Yantain Express incident, crew initially fought the fire however heavy weather caused them to cease firefighting operations and abandon ship. The crew and salvors then reboarded to undertake fire suppression. Weather was a major factor. The salvage vessels that attended to the casualty played a major role and while the plan was initially to take her under tow, she was able to use her own power. This all took place in the mid-Atlantic. Horizon Marine’s Halifax-based OSV Horizon Star was dispatched from Halifax to bring out equipment and a salvage crew. The OSV Maersk Mobiliser departed from St. John’s, Newfoundland. The salvage was coordinated by Smit. This all took place in the mid-North Atlantic in winter.
Container ship fires can present a complex mixture of cargoes including dangerous cargoes under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG). In a fire, the retardants and water can mix with chemicals, resulting in a toxic brew that is difficult to address and handle while at sea or ashore in a terminal. This was a major issue with Maersk Honam.
Firefighting on board a modern container ship is a hugely problematic activity. Notwithstanding STCW requirements for firefighting capabilities, training and periodic drills are insufficient to build proficiency, even in ideal circumstances.
The height of a standard shipping container is eight feet (hi-cubes are 9.5 feet). A stack six tall, would be the equivalent of attempting to fight a fire in a six-storey building entirely from the exterior, albeit on a moving ship with no aerial devices or the ability to apply water to the seat of the fire.
Container fires can spread by causing neighbouring containers to heat to the point where their contents reach the point of combustion. Boundary cooling is perhaps more important than attempting to fight the fire in the container.
Municipal fire departments tend to be well versed in hazmat response. Road vehicles require placards on containers; drivers carry shipping documentation; and emergency response guides assist responders in handling the situation. With ships and ports, the containers are more densely packed and heat can obliterate markings that would otherwise identify the contents, complicating response. Vancouver experienced this problem firsthand. DP World’s Centerm was the scene of an incident on March 5, 2015, involving the chemical hazardous organic compound (trichloroisocyanuric acid) that burned/oxidized for 24 hours. It was finally extinguished by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. Initially, the substance was unknown because of the state of the container — it was later determined by Vancouver Coastal Health through testing. The VFRS fireboat was able to utilize its pumping capacity to provide the aerial apparatus with additional seawater from alongside the terminal. VFRS trains harder than they fight and it showed, leading to a positive outcome. Without the stellar response of VFRS, the outcome could have been much worse.
The Centerm incident highlights the potential risk and impact that a single container can create at an urban container terminal. At sea, it is compounded and magnified by the fact that containers are tightly loaded in bays with limited access. In addition, there are no highly trained and experienced professional firefighters to call. Firefighting is an additional duty.
Container ship fires are costly, complex and pose a real threat to the environment, public safety and the health of both first responders and the ship’s crew. Given the confined space and multiple types of cargo and fuel sources that may or may not be extinguishable by water, container ship fires present serious problems that cannot simply be addressed by onboard fire suppression systems. This has been the subject of a great deal of recent attention by the international marine engineering community, vessel owners and operators, marine insurers and classification societies.
The Yantian Express claim will likely affect 14 cargo bays and the ship’s claim general average wherein the cargo owners are required to make a contribution to the salvage of the vessel and associated costs. This requires the cargo interests to post security before the cargo can be released. Fighting the fire is the easy part compared to settling a complex general average claim.
In addition, there is the cost of rerouting the cargo in the containers which is based on a supply chain that has, as its fundamental cornerstone, a just-in-time inventory aspect so delays have downstream effects depending on the particular shipment.
A key component of Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) is examining gaps in Canada’s hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) regime. This was the topic of a recent invitation-only dialogue session held in Vancouver to identify HNS-incident response gaps. The session noted the following gaps: the lack of a systematic approach to HNS-incident preparedness and response; unclear roles and responsibilities limiting HNS-incident emergency response; communication gaps in notifications and information-sharing between governments, First Nations, coastal communities and other stakeholders; knowledge (for example, about dangerous cargo in railcars or on ships) and limited prevention measures in place.
Another outcome of the OPP HNS-incident analysis included recommended actions: Strengthen coordination of HNS-incident emergency response; map out current HNS-incident response processes; develop clear HNS-incident response protocols; clarify roles and responsibilities; and better integrate all levels/jurisdictions, including municipalities, in emergency response coordination.
Additional issues to be considered include ports of refuge as well as marine response capability on Canada’s West Coast. At present, the Canadian Coast Guard’s stated position is that it does not fight ship-board fires. This highlights a marine response gap. Fire suppression is left to the private sector including salvors and private firefighting services and/or the ship’s crew. Transport Canada is involved because they are the federal agency responsible for the safety of life at sea and shipping governance. Transport Canada has a positive duty and obligation to act and have the powers to make various directions and orders under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 on all safety and pollution prevention aspects of a marine incident.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, led by recent Chief Darrell Reid, building on a forward-leaning history, has a robust marine firefighting capability in Canada’s largest port. VFRS is restricted in their fire suppression aboard a foreign vessel and would provide only technical support to the ship’s crew. It is important to understand that Hazmat response is intertwined in these incidents. VFRS has a deep capability in the hazmat area. VFRS also recently acquired two new fireboats and has trained a cadre (45) of Marine Response Technicians (MRT). This is a great capability to have in the marine response toolbox.
Container ship fires are real and continue to occur. These incidents present an opportunity for Canada to lead the way in developing a strategy for ship-board fire response just like it is starting to do with respect to underwater noise. This involves specialized knowledge and a team approach across jurisdictions and private interest including vessel owners, classification societies, underwriters, marine surveyors and salvors to ensure there is a prompt and timely response. This affects the safety of life at sea as well as protection of cargo interests. Yantain Express burning in the North Atlantic for a month should fire up marine stakeholders and the Government of Canada (through the vehicle of the Oceans Protection Plan and the obligation to protect the safety of life at sea) to take action on this very real marine risk.
Joe Spears is the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group and Viking International Marine Response, is a mariner, former CCG Rescue coxswain and has been involved in ship-board firefighting and marine risk for 40 years. His father, Kenny Spears, was a 38-year fire officer with the Halifax Fire Department who attended many ship fires in the Port of Halifax.