Today’s ultra large container vessels are able to carry more than 20,000 TEU of goods, which has had a stimulating effect on both trade, and on the risk of fires on-board. Steve Cameron takes a closer look at developments

The stimulating effect on trade that the ubiquitous maritime container has had is up there with the change brought about by the jumbo jet and the internet. The standardisation in cargo handling has brought huge trade growth, which has triggered economies of scale across the supply chain, especially on ship size, with today’s ultra large container vessels, able to carry more than 20,000 TEU (20 ft equivalent units) – which if laid end to end, would stretch from Southampton to London.

The benefits of these economies of scale have brought new fire risk challenges on-board these vessels, requiring urgent industry focus. Identifying the location of the outbreak of a fire on-board a ULCV, can be almost impossible, as it could be in any one of many thousand boxes located either high up in a stack or buried deep below decks, on-board.

Fires aboard container ships, as opposed to other vessel types such as large bulk carriers, are also extremely difficult to handle because of the more complex configuration of decks, the vast distances involved to traverse on larger ships, and the difficulty of identifying and reaching a specific container, or block of containers on fire, is like trying to reach items in the middle of Rubik’s Cube made up of containers 24 across and 21 units deep.

With more than 10 per cent, or 22,000 tonnes, of all cargo consisting of hazardous substances, (flammable, toxic, explosive gasses and corrosive materials) and 50 per cent of the cargo consisting of materials that are flammable, once a fire starts, it can be almost impossible to control and extinguish, as not only does the container protect the cargo from damage, it also stops the water used to extinguish the fire, from getting in.

At a recent event on maritime safety, Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director of insurer TT Club, pointed to the adjacency risk of fires spreading from one box to another and that risk being aggregated by the increasing size of container ships. This makes it essential for container cargoes to be properly declared, allowing hazardous materials to be identified as such in advance, and stowed accordingly. Risks due to the continuing problems of misdeclared cargo, are being offset by a Cargo Incident Notification System, which enables shipping lines to share details of misdeclared cargo. The International Maritime Organisation is working on the problem across the supply chain, but Storrs-Fox says will be a considerable time lag before any regulatory solution is introduced.

One major, topical example of misdeclared cargo that of lithium-ion batteries being declared as mobile phone parts. This practice has contributed to major container ship fires. They have become a challenge to the maritime industry, not just on container vessels, but also on car carriers, where lithium-ion battery failures have caused fires resulting in thermal runaway – in turn leading to the complete loss of vessels.

Tackling the problem

With the solution to this issue some way off, what can be done in the meantime to tackle the problem on container ships? AI and machine learning can play an important role in spotting anomalies in vast sets of data and thereby helping detect misdeclared or non-declared cargoes. One liner company has recently introduced an AI-based system which detected around a dozen misdeclared cargoes in its first month of trial operation and is now being rolled out across the rest of the line’s network.

Shipbuilders are developing an AI-based fire alarm system that helps detect the outbreak of fires more quickly. On-board wireless connectivity can be developed to allow temperature sensors to be placed in previously inaccessible locations to identify rises in temperature caused by an outbreak of fire, more quickly. Thermal imaging and battery-powered sensors should give a 20 minute head start on traditional smoke detection systems.

The regulations for ships fire-fighting equipment need to be urgently upgraded to better cope with scale and complexity the industry now faces. In the event a fire does break out, there’s no substitute for ship-specific physical training, involved the actual donning of fire-fighting protective suits and operating suppression equipment. However, with ULCV ships staff often consisting of only 24 crew members in total, expecting them to be able to successfully tackle a fire whilst alone in the middle of the ocean, which is equivalent of a blaze in a chemical factory that would require 20 to 30 fire tenders and more than 100 fire fighters, remains a difficult challenge.

This article was published in the Q3 2022 issue of CIR Magazine.

Download PDF

Contact the editor

    Share Story:


Cyber risk in the transportation industry
The connected nature of the transport and logistics industries makes them an attractive target for hackers, with potentially disruptive and costly consequences. Between June 2020 and June 2021, the transportation industry saw an 186% increase in weekly ransomware attacks. At the same time, regulations and cyber security standards are lacking – creating weak postures across the board. This podcast explores the key risks. Published April 2022.

Political risk: A fresh perspective
CIR’s editor, Deborah Ritchie speaks with head of PCS at Verisk, Tom Johansmeyer about the confluence of political, nat cat and pandemic risks in a world that is becoming an increasingly risky place in which to do business. Published February 2022.