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Live from Posidonia

Rising concern over fire safety onboard ships

Photo: Portuguese Navy Car carrier Felicity Ace on fire
UK-based Survitec, a safety and survival company, has pointed to what it describes as an alarming increase in faulty firefighting equipment found on ships during port state control inspections.

In a white paper released at Posidonia in Athens earlier this week, Survitec pointed out that fires continue to be the most expensive cause of marine insurance claims and account for more than 20% of total losses.

The company believes that some owners and operators are taking a haphazard approach to fire safety by failing to carry out diligent safety checks by suitable qualified personnel. Standards are falling, according to Metkel Yohannes, Survitec’s Director of Service & Rental Solutions.

“We see evidence of a slip in standards regarding basic safety practices,” he said, “but also a wide disparity in service quality between service providers. Approval stamps are being applied to fire systems and appliances that would or should not pass inspection.”

Survitec’s findings are all the more worrying because of a new type of shipboard fire risk which is a major concern for marine insurers. The rapidly expanding carriage by sea of battery powered vehicles has introduced an entirely new risk stratum because lithium-ion fires have completely different properties to conventional carbon-based fires.

In fires involving electric vehicles (EV), battery failure can result in thermal runaway in which the battery cell temperature rises so quickly that the stored energy is suddenly released. Instead of a conventional fire taking 10-15 minutes to develop, it can take merely a matter of seconds, at maximum a minute, before flames shoot out from the bottom of a vehicle.

Seafarers are not trained to fight such fires and shipboard firefighting equipment is not suitable either. Experts say that conventional firefighting procedures can actually make EV fires worse by making them last longer. Furthermore, battery fires emit a range of poisonous gases, including compounds of hydrogen such as hydrogen fluoride, chloride and cyanide, as well as carbon monoxide, methane and sulphur dioxide.

There have already been a number of major incidents. In June 2020, the 4,940 ceu Höegh Xiamen caught fire as cars were being unloaded in Jacksonville, Florida. The fire burned for days and the vessel was declared a constructive total loss.

The Felicity Ace, a 6,400 ceu vessel, sank in the Atlantic Ocean in March 2022 on a voyage between Emden in Germany and Rhode Island. The 22-person crew on board abandoned ship but the cargo of Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Porsches and Rolls-Royces were all lost. The insurance loss exceeded half a billion dollars.  

In August 2023, a fire broke out on the 6,200 ceu Fremantle Highway. Most of the seafarers were able to abandon ship but one crew member perished. The ship drifted in the North Sea without power for a week as the fire continued to burn.   

Dutch CoastguardFremantle Highway on fire

Insurance experts, classification societies and ship safety bodies are increasingly concerned. Fire specialists point out that within the next few years, most cars, motor homes, and high-and-heavy equipment will either be hybrid or fully electric. Meanwhile the trade in secondhand vehicles, with batteries that may not be in top condition, will also grow. The probability of more EV-related fires and potential ship losses will inevitably rise.   

However, there is growing awareness of these new perils and the risks are now being assessed by industry groups. One such project, set up in February 2023 as a collaborative project by SafetyTech Accelerator, a not-for-profit organisation established by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, is the Cargo Fire & Loss Innovation Initiative.

Amongst others, its members include Evergreen, HMM, Maersk, the Offen Group, Ocean Network Express, and Seaspan. More companies are signing as the extent of EV transport risk by sea becomes evident. The aim is to develop a better understanding of lithium-ion fires and how shipboard safety systems and seafarers can be better equipped to fight them.