Evolving technologies create new practices

Evolving technologies create new practices

The world is ever-changing, as are ships and cargoes, thus regulations are frequently reviewed and updated and the industry is constantly looking for innovations to improve safety aboard ship, as well as firefighting techniques and equipment.

Seafarers, whether on passenger or cargo ships, all have a part to pay during onboard emergencies.  The STCW -95 training, also known as the Basic Safety Training (BST), is the standard emergency, safety and survival training required by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for anyone working at sea and must be updated every 5 years.  Further to this, Technical and Deck officers often complete an Advanced Fire Fighting course, which covers firefighting procedures at sea and in port with emphasis on organisation, tactics and effective command, including liaison with shore-based firefighters. It also covers topics such as ventilation control, hazards involving dangerous goods and the effects of firefighting water on ship stability.  

When at sea, the team becomes the ships emergency response team, help from another vessel could be hours away and everybody must be ready to play their part.  The IMO outlines fire safety provisions for all ships, with detailed measures for passenger ships, cargo ships and tankers as part of SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) under the International Code for Fire Safety Systems.  The code covers the provision of PPE & breathing apparatus, as well as fixed firefighting systems, fire detection and alarm systems, sample extraction smoke detection systems, means of escape, low location lighting systems and international shore connections for fighting fires and refilling in port.  

Recently, a car carrier- Felicity Ace – caught fire and sank near the Azores with 4000 Volkswagen group vehicles onboard, including electric (EV) .  According to the Azorean Harbourmaster the lithium-ion batteries in the electric cars had ignited and the ship did not have the special equipment to extinguish the fire.  While it’s unsure whether the initial source of the fire was from one of the lithium-ion batteries will probably never be known thanks to the vessel sinking, but it is clear that the ship’s onboard systems were no match for the burning batteries and the crew’s lives were put at risk because of this.  There is evidence that current suppression and drenching systems are not sufficient for the new risk posed by electric vehicles, and that new systems need to be devised and incorporated into ship design.

EVs and hybrid vehicles also pose a potential issue on Ro-Ro ferries, with the cars being left unaccompanied on many of them, and future ship designers looking to incorporate charging facilities for vehicles on board.  As things stand, some ferry companies are now carrying specialist EV fire blankets on their car decks in order to isolate and help extinguish EV fires should they happen during crossings, in addition to the more traditional firefighting equipment which can be used to help cool the area.

There is also a move towards hybrid and battery powered ships in some areas of the world, specifically in Norway, where ferries make short trips around fjords, and several fires involving the battery packs have been reported.  A study led by Norwegian ships registrar, DNV-GL and other industry stakeholders found that FiFi4Marine’s lithium-ion fire extinguishing system was found to be the best performing product against ships’ battery fires.  The CAFS system uses an automated direct foam injection from high pressure cylinders, which mean it can operate for at least three hours without requiring electricity from the ship’s supply.  The biodegradable foam is injected directly into the battery casing in question, effectively containing the fire at source.  Developers believe the system could have helped prevent a fire onboard the Norled Car Ferry, which started after coolant for the lithium-ion battery’s leaked and thermal run away occurred.  To add to this, the ships salt-water sprinklers actually made the fire worse, as they caused several short circuits.  The developers of the CAFS system feel that the industry’s safety procedures and regulations are still catching up with new technologies.

More new technologies are in development for decarbonising the shipping industry, and with this comes a move to alternative fuels such as bio-ethanol and hydrogen.  The first ships to run on these fuels are in service, with Norled once again leading the way by taking delivery of the world’s first hydrogen powered ferry in the summer of 2021.  Norled worked closely with the Norwegian maritime authorities and the DNV GL on the handling of liquid hydrogen, and unlike most ships, the fuel tank is kept on the top deck of the vessel where it can be easily vented and isolated if needed.  Many stakeholders have been developing codes of practice and legislation for hydrogen and other low flashpoint fuels such as LNG, pin-pointing the specific challenges these fuels can present.  The DNV GL have published an extensive handbook on how to design the safety systems onboard, and on how fires should be talked and extinguished.

Fires on most ships initially rely on automated fire suppression systems for containment, giving crew time to respond to the emergency.  But how will this work on automated, crewless vessels?  As all ready discussed, at sea, the seafarers make up the ships’ emergency response team, and tackle fires on board.  Some companies who are developing automated ships see the need to have engineers on board, but not specifically seafaring engineers, meaning a potential lack of training when it comes to dealing with emergencies on board, and launching lifeboats.  Shipping companies, the IMO and port authorities are working to find the solution before commercialisation of this new technology.

As well as having their own fully automated firefighting systems on board, automated and remotely operated unmanned vessels are being developed to tackle firefighting at sea.  Hong Kong based OceanAlpha are incorporating firefighting equipment into their product range, hoping to provide a quick response to emergency situations, which can operate with 15km of its base station.  It can send back real time data and video to operators in command centres or onboard a mother ship.  The small vessel can reach a speed of 46 knots, which would enable it to start assessing emergency situations and fighting the fire before larger personnel carrying ships arrive.

But what of more traditional, manned vessels? On 20th May 2021 a chemical fire broke out on the containership MV X-Press Pearl, the crew struggled to contain the fire and it eventually spread causing the loss of the ship several days later.  The fire didn’t only have an effect on the shipping company, and their clients, over 370 tonnes of oil were onboard when the ship sank, and a massive oil slick had a negative environmental and economic impact in the locality.  There is now a fishing ban in the area which impacts the livelihood of over 4,300 families, and the values of the cargo lost could total up to $50 million.  But this fire was preventable.  It was caused by a container of nitric acid which was found to be leaking on 11th May, and although he ship requested to off load the container in the next two ports – Port Hamad (one of the larges ports in the Middle East) and Port Hariza (Owned by the largest commercial port operator in India), the request was denied as neither of these ports had specialist facilities to deal with leaking chemicals.   The ship had spent the night of the 19th of May at anchor outside Colombo, Sri Lanka, but had not declared an emergency chemical spill.  This cautionary tale illustrates how foresight, prevention and the preparedness of ports to assist in related problems is just as important as how fires are dealt with onboard a ship.

There have been developments in onboard firefighting for container ships.  HydroPen has been developed with
container ships in mind.  The ground-breaking container firefighting technology enables container firefighting at all heights. It operates fully automatically and keeps the crew safe. The system essentially allows a plate mounted water powered drill (with hose attached) to be hoisted into place on a burning container.  

Gravity will then help it lock into place, and once the water is turned on, the pressure provided drives a dill which cuts a hole in the container, allowing the water to penetrate it then contain and extinguish the fire before it spreads to other containers.  If water isn’t suitable to use in the container in question, once the container has been penetrated, the hose can be disconnected from the water supply and connected to either a foam or CO2 injection system depending on the type of fire.  However, HydroPen requires access to the containers locking bars to work, while this is easy with 40 foot containers, if two 20 foot containers are stacked together and orientated with the locking bars between them, the system won’t be usable – it is also not suitable for reefer (refrigerating) containers.  

While the system is being used on ships currently, the company are still developing it, and are working on a system for larger ships which have seven or eight containers above the lashing bridge – the current system will only reach up to six containers high.  While this equipment probably wouldn’t have saved the MV X-Pearl – as the fire eventually started in a hold where the acid had leaked into rather than in a container, the system could have helped tackle the fire on MSC Daniella in 2018, before it spread and consequently burned for more than a week.

While regulations are updated to keep up with ever changing technologies, and growing sizes of ship, it is really important to remember the vast and sometimes overlooked wider impact the loss of a ship can have on the seafarers whose job it is to prevent and tackle fires when they happen, as well as the impact on the companies involved, and the local environmental impact.  Seafarers are away from home for months at a time, and already under immense pressure in the work place, recent studies show that a higher number of seafarers seem to suffer from depression than in other working groups.  There has been a large focus on mental wellbeing and resilience in the industry, in a bid to keep the teams healthy for whatever their time aboard throws at them.  Adding this to the ongoing developments in fire protective equipment and working practices helps to ensure they have everything they need if the call comes to put their firefighting training to use.