The time is now to address container ship, cargo fire hazard

No one should be surprised when a container ship catches fire, no matter how new or big the vessel might be.

It is no exaggeration to say that literally every container ship is a catastrophe waiting to happen, given how little carriers know about cargo loaded onto their ships, the frequency with which shippers misdeclare hazardous cargo with impunity, the lack of a safety culture industrywide, the inadequacy of effective firefighting capability on even the newest ships, and the inaction by governments tasked with enforcing safety rules.

Serious container ship fires are now happening once every 60 days on average, according to the TT Club, a freight insurance and risk-management specialist. The latest big one as of April 17 was the 15,000-TEU Maersk Honam, which was still smoldering more than a month after it caught fire on March 6 in the Arabian Sea. The fire killed five crew members, and left the ship’s cargo either destroyed, damaged, or indefinitely stranded.

And yet, unlike how the problem of overweight containers was addressed with the tough 2016 Safety of Life at Sea verified gross mass (VGM) rule — which holds the shipper accountable for accurately declaring container weights — there is little momentum to address the menace of container ship fires. That is despite the fires killing crew members and causing tens of millions of dollars of cargo losses and supply chain disruption annually.

Consider the level of inspection and enforcement activity targeting dangerous goods shipments by coastguard agencies around the world. Roughly 5.4 million containers are shipped annually containing declared dangerous goods, of which more than 20 percent are possibly deficient in regard to compliance with hazardous materials-handling rules, according to comments submitted to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) last year by the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA).

In regard to one area of noncompliance — placarding and marking of hazardous goods containers — the percent of noncompliant containers has sharply increased in recent years. Wrongly placarded units can create a major hazard, as exemplified in Vancouver in 2015 when a container packed with dangerous goods caught fire, as well as numerous incidents on board ships, according to the ICHCA submission.

Governments have done little

Yet governments do little. The number of inspections performed on loaded containers holding dangerous goods is about four per 100,000 packed containers moved, according to the ICHCA. Unlike anti-terrorism container security programs, there is no additional layer of data screening behind the relatively few number of actual inspections.

Despite IMO member states being urged by the organization in 2012 to implement inspection programs and report their findings to the IMO, as of last year only four out of the 175 IMO member states had submitted a report to the IMO on the results of cargo inspections, according to the ICHCA. The findings “drew attention to the lamentable level of competent authority enforcement/inspections alongside the worrying level of deficiencies found,” according to the submission to the IMO.

A recent ICHCA seminar reported “one shipping line [revealed] that many shippers use alternative terms for dangerous goods to avoid surcharges and having to comply with additional measures, including any ship or port restrictions, as well as the regulations themselves,” according to the IMO submission.

“It is a serious situation when a unit packed with dangerous goods, requiring specific and careful placement or stowage aboard a ship, is treated as if there were no danger from its contents at all; such a container may inadvertently be positioned in a way that exposes it to increased risk, thereby endangering other cargo, the crew, and the ship,” Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director at TT Club, wrote recently.

Something needs to change. As ships get bigger — the largest ship in service is 21,413 TEU versus 9,578 TEU in 2000 — more cargo is at risk from any given fire. Focus is needed on two fronts, in terms of the carrier achieving greater certainty as to the cargo loaded on its ships, and in how ships are designed to minimize fire risk. Options worth considering include a “known shipper” regime similar to what exists in air cargo, as well as the concept of an individual’s signature associated with the cargo declaration, such as with VGM. “One angle of debate has to be whether the maritime world can follow the air mode in requiring ‘known shippers.’ Similarly, requiring a signed packing certificate for all shipments [rather than just dangerous goods] could focus minds,” Storrs-Fox told JOC.com.

The other area of focus needs to be on the ships themselves. Insurers complain that firefighting infrastructure tends to be more advanced in the engine room than in cargo holds, and that cost saving has become a mantra in container ship construction, resulting in needed fire mitigation features not being included aboard many new vessels. Finally, the process of stowage plans being created and approved, ultimately by the master, has to be improved, said Captain Rabinder Singh, a Singapore-based independent marine surveyor.

It is not known how many more mega-container ships need to go up in flames, how many times general average has to be declared, or how many crew members will perish before the industry confronts this hazard head on. Sooner, rather than later, would be best.

Contact Peter Tirschwell at peter.tirschwell@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @petertirschwell.

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