Industry demands regulatory action as container fires continue

Containers are unloaded from the burnt container ship MSC Flaminia in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Credit:  Ingo Wagner/DPA/PA Images

A powerful group, led by the global marine insurance industry, has tabled a submission to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) calling for greater firefighting standards on the world’s container vessels. 

The submission calls for amendments to SOLAS chapter 11-2 regulations on enhanced provisions for early fire detection and the effective control of fires in containerised cargoes stowed under and on deck. 

The call has been led by the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) and has been backed by the German flag state, the Bahamas, BIMCO, and the Community of European Shipyards Associations (CESA). The paper, calling for a new output, has been submitted to the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee and is due to be considered in a meeting in May. 

The paper comes after a torrid start to the year for container fires at sea, with Cosco Pacific the highest profile of a string of fires in the first six weeks of 2020. It comes after 2019 was described as “unprecedented” for the sheer number of cargo fires by IUMI. 

The Cosco Pacific fire is thought to involve a cargo of misdeclared lithium batteries, underlining ongoing concerns with the deliberate or unwitting misdeclaration of hazardous cargoes, which remains a concern for shipping firms and their insurers alike. 

Helle Hammer, chair of IUMI’s Policy Forum, said, “Without doubt, this is an issue that will be a priority for the Policy Forum for this year. We produced a discussion paper on this topic in 2017 due to the rising numbers of fires and the concerns around the level of firefighting equipment required on container vessels. 

“We sought to engage the wider market in a more holistic view of the issue, and what is clear is that misdeclaration remains a key part of the problem and steps need to be taken to address it.” 

She added“In 2000, the maritime industry transported 4.4 million TEU, that figure increased to 20 million in 2017. The average capacity per operating vessel in 2000 was 1,000 TEU, by last year that had increased to 5,000 TEU, and we now have ultra-large container vessels, which can carry 20,000 TEU. 

“The larger the vessels the greater the risk to seafarers and the vessels themselves. Sadly, we have seen, and continue to see, seafarers lose their lives or [become] badly injured in cargo fires.” 

Hammer said IUMI has begun a study on the 56 known container cargo fires that occurred between 2000 and 2015, which saw 8,252 TEU damaged. Excluding the loss or repair of the vessels, those incidents resulted in total loss of USD1 billion. 

“It’s clear that the current SOLAS regulations are not adequate when considering the size of the modern ULCS/VLCS [ultra-large container ship/very-large container ship] ships and the complexities of fighting fires on board vessels,” an IUMI statement said. “The expected growth of the container vessels fleet and the larger average size of container vessels will inevitably lead to a further danger to crew and the environment, and increased costs of damage to cargo and vessels in the event of a fire in the cargo of container vessels.” 

The organisation added it is encouraging member states to support the proposal for the new output and will actively support further work if agreed. 

IUMI has formed an expert group on the issue, which has seen more than 30 experts from flag states and across the maritime industry volunteer to participate. 

I’m fairly confident that the committee will agree to the new output,” Hammer told Safety at Sea. “Given the spike we have seen in cargo fires on container vessels, now is the right time to start doing this. We are focused on providing a big push to get this across the line.”