IMO urged to amend fire safety regulations
While there were no surprises in a report on the cause of last year's Yantian Express fire, it could be years before the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) amends on-board safety regulations, according to the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI). "It addresses exactly what we state in our position paper and what we see all the time, and we see one incident after the next," said IUMI secretary-general Lars Lange. "We see ship owners, Maersk, MSC, Hapag-Lloyd and others, acting on a company level, which is great. What ship owners say and we say is that safety should happen on a level playing field. It shouldn't provide you with disadvantages in competition when on an individual level you work on safety measures, which cost money of course." Germany's Federal Bureau of Maritime Casualty Investigation (BSU) said last month that mis-declared coconut charcoal was the most likely source of the blaze on the Yantian Express, which caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean on 3 January 2019. "We have far too much misidentification of cargo," Lange said. "Many things, whether on purpose or not, are not declared precisely and incorrectly handled on board and this might cause a fire. This is, in nearly all cases, the root cause."
He called for penalties against shippers that mis-declare cargo. "Fines by the shipping lines are good to increase the pressure on shippers that they don't dare mis-declare cargo," Lange said. "You also need more random inspections of cargo." On-board fire fighting measures have to change as well, Lange said. "We have these CO2 systems in the holds. In many cases, and the Yantian Express was an example, that simply doesn't work for cargo and containers. The container contains the fire. CO2 doesn't reach the fire. And in that very moment when the metal of the container starts to melt, it's already that serious that you can't extinguish it with CO2," he said.
Vessel fire safety "needs regulation and it needs a level playing field. Safety shouldn't be left to individual business entities. Safety should be dealt with at a regulatory level, and that would mean in this case the IMO," Lange said. "The IMO has complex procedures," he continued, explaining that a maritime safety committee could agree to take up on-board fire safety measures in May. The matter most likely then would be referred to a ship equipment and systems subcommittee, which isn't slated to meet again until early 2021. A draft document would be passed among subcommittees for mark up.
"Usually it takes three to four years, if you like it or not. Then it has to be adopted," Lange said. "This would come into effect for each and every vessel out there so you should take the time to avoid any uncertainty or unexpected things or mistakes in IMO regulations. International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) amendments have to be very, very well thought through because every vessel in the world will immediately have to comply with that." SOLAS, which was amended in 2014 and applied to ships built after January 2016 to increase the effectiveness of fire fighting measures.
The Yantian Express fire timeline
The Yantian Express fire broke out in a container stowed on the deck of the German-flagged vessel while the ship was en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Hapag-Lloyd container ship began its westbound voyage in Vung Tau, Vietnam and berthed in Singapore and Sri Lanka before sailing for Halifax. The fire was discovered in the early-morning hours of 3 January 2019. "The officer in charge of the navigational watch noticed the glow of a fire well forward. He then advised the master of what he had seen immediately and the latter hurried to the bridge," the BSU report said. "The master stated that the flames were already large and clearly visible by this point in time but did not have any unusual colours."
The 73-page report noted, "The ship's command sounded the general alarm immediately after the fire was discovered. After it was mustered, the crew began to fight the fire in bay 12. Prevailing wind strengths of [gale force on the Beaufort scale] and low temperatures made the conditions for fighting the fire extremely challenging."
The report reads like a screenplay for an action-adventure film. "The chief officer reported that the crew was exhausted after the fire fighting operation had continued for some 15 hours. Due to the fire fighting operation and occasional light rain, the fire-protection clothing repeatedly became saturated and had to be changed. The fire fighters cooled down quickly because of the strong wind. The clothes donned to protect against the cold were heavy and became even heavier when wet. The crew was therefore assigned to alternating shifts from then on.
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