Container ship fire issue continues to burn

Fires and explosions on board such vessels continue to generate large losses with an incident occurring every 60 days on average. What can be done?

In January 2019, the Hapag-Lloyd Yantian Express caught fire as the 7,510 teu container ship transited off Canada’s eastern seaboard. Just weeks later, as the fire was finally being extinguished on this vessel, fire broke out on a second container ship APL Vancouver off Vung Ro, Vietnam. The two incidents are the latest in a series of  container ship cargo fires in recent years, which have included the Maersk Honam in 2018, MSC Daniela in 2017 and CCNI Arauco in 2016.

Insurers such as Allianz and the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) have previously warned of safety concerns surrounding large container vessels, promoting improved ship design and fire-fighting equipment to prevent and extinguish fires.

“Fire on board ultra large container ships (ULCS) is our biggest concern right now,” explains Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS. “Insurers have highlighted this as a growing risk in recent years and, sadly, this has proven correct. This is a serious and concerning trend. While there have been discussions within the shipping industry, we have yet to see concrete steps to tackle this risk as yet.”
Fighting fire on board the Maersk Honam. It was several weeks before the vessel could be towed to a suitable port of refuge. Photo: Indian Coast Guard (GODL-India).

ULCS pose a number of challenges, including the firefighting capabilities of vessels and the complexity of salvage. Fires break out in containers relatively frequently – logistics insurer, TT Club says there is a fire every 60 days – yet firefighting capabilities have not kept up with the upsizing of container vessels.

“It should be the industry standard that any vessel, including a ULCS, should have the capability built into its design to tackle most on board fires themselves,” says Chris Turberville, Head of Marine Hull & Liabilities, UK, AGCS. “It is very clear that this is not currently the case and they require considerable outside assistance to control a blaze; often by which time significant damage has been done to the vessel. This also significantly increases the possible salvage claim.”

Improving the firefighting capabilities of ULCS is critical, but equally challenging is the problem of misdeclared cargo, which is thought to be the root cause of a number of fires. Estimates show the majority (66%) of cargo damage across freight modes, including container fires, is attributable to poor packing and labeling of dangerous materials [1]. Prevention should be a priority for ship owners, according to Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at AGCS. “The size of large container ships and their design is a factor, but the focus should be on preventing fires from starting in the first place. There is clearly a problem with both misdeclared, and incorrect packaging of, cargo. Regulations and guidelines for dangerous cargo exist, but they are not being adequately enforced and adhered to.”

A container ship fire has yet to result in a total loss, but incidents in recent years have generated some large losses. It was several weeks before the Maersk Honam could be towed to a suitable port of refuge after its fire on board and this incident is expected to result in one of the largest general average claims on record. However, a total loss of a ship this size could have exceeded $1bn.

[1] TT Club, Campaign For Greater Container Safety Must Focus First On Dangerous Goods, March 2019

Photo on the top: Indonesian Navy

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