Fires happen: it’s time to act

It can be dangerous for crew to test that the CO2 fire extinguishing systems on board their vessel are in working order but there is a safer way, writes Carl Stephen Patrick, CEO, Coltraco

Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter, CEO, Coltraco. Credit: Coltraco

At sea, fire poses one the of biggest threats to ships. According to Lloyd’s List, almost 10% of total losses at sea in the past 10 years have been caused by fire. Unlike shore-based workers, crew cannot pick up the phone and wait for firefighters to arrive. Ultimately, ships are their own fire brigade. And as vessels become larger and more sophisticated, a greater financial interest is tied up in each ship, which means the risks are magnified if the vessel is facing difficulties.

According to the International Maritime Organization, Safety of Life at Sea, Fire Safety Systems (IMO SOLAS FSS) Code, there is a need for crew to test the contents of their CO2, FM-200 & NOVEC 1230 gaseous extinguishing systems between the periodic inspection, maintenance, and certification intervals. These periodic inspections are conducted annually or biennially, and only by an accredited service agent, such as an external marine servicing company.

However, as stated above, having an annual inspection by an accredited marine servicing company is not enough. As stated in the FFS code, the crew of a vessel must take responsibility for their own fire protection.

What must be noted, though, is that the crew are often not trained or certified to shut down, dismantle, weigh, and re-install the gaseous cylinders – the traditional method.

A ship’s gaseous extinguishing system typically comprises between 200 and 600 cylinders each containing 45 kg of CO2 under high – 720 psi/49 bar – pressure. One of the highest probabilities of discharge occurs during their maintenance. Some marine service companies estimate that 20% of a ship’s CO2 cylinders have discharged or partially leaked their contents at some point in their lifetime. The loss of contents of the cylinders could mean that in the event of the fire, there may not be enough CO2 to extinguish the fire.

The regulations also state that “means shall be provided for the crew to safely check the quantity of the fire extinguishing medium in the container”. Using an ultrasonic liquid level indicator is the only way the crew can safely test their CO2 without disturbing them.

If marine companies implemented the IMO SOLAS FSS codes by testing safely and quickly (30–60 seconds per cylinder) by using liquid level indicators and marine servicing companies could do their work without time pressures, then marine safety would improve.

Bad industry practice is unacceptable when fire risk may have catastrophic results in terms of risk to life, downtime in operation because of ship safety and repair work, and incalculable reputational damage. The crew, cargo, and vessel must be protected when at sea.