Improved fire safety for container ships on the horizon

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A thorough effort based on the IMO Formal Safety Assessment (FSA) procedure has ensured that the recommendations in DBI’s report CARGOSAFE will form the basis for discussions at the IMO. The recommendations are now a significant step closer to becoming international regulations.

The number of fires on container ships has doubled over the past twenty years. Larger ships and new types of cargo affect fire safety on board, and the existing minimum rules from the IMO do not seem to match today’s risk picture. It was against this backdrop that the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) asked DBI to lead the CARGOSAFE project, which in 2023 published a report with 17 possible measures on how to improve fire safety on container ships.

An expert group in the IMO has scrutinized the CARGOSAFE report and concluded that it meets the requirements of a Formal Safety Assessment, also known as FSA. Thus, the report’s conclusions and recommendations are ready to be addressed in the IMO’s Subcommittee on Ship Systems and Equipment, SSE, on March 4-8.

“It is not an everyday occurrence that an FSA report goes through this type of review so smoothly. But since we strictly followed the FSA procedure in CARGOSAFE, the path is paved for relatively quick processing,” says DBI’s project manager for CARGOSAFE, Anders V. Kristensen.
“Changing the regulation for safety at sea is a process that takes many years. Therefore, it is especially gratifying to see that recommendations from the FSA-based approach have now reached the IMO SSE Subcommittee, which will make changes to SOLAS (the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea),” he continues.

Formal Safety Assessment (FSA) is a structured and systematic method used to assess risks and identify the most effective ways to improve safety in the maritime sector. FSA was developed in response to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, where an oil platform in the North Sea exploded, and 167 people lost their lives.

FSA consists of five steps – identification of hazards, assessment of risks, risk control options, cost-benefit assessment and recommendations for decision-making. All five steps are resource-intensive if they are to be done properly, but both EMSA and IMO have praised DBI’s approach, and CARGOSAFE has been called a model project on how to approach improving safety at sea.

“Admittedly, it’s a difficult and complicated process, but the hard work pays off in the long run when the subsequent process goes much smoother,” says Anders V. Kristensen.

To illustrate the complexity of the work, he mentions extensive input from the industry already in step 1, identification of hazards. An associated expert group assisted in step 2, the risk analysis, by grouping the identified hazards into the areas of prevention, detection, firefighting, and containment. In step 3 – risk analysis – the hazards were assessed in matrices with consequence calculations for each hazard. The cost-benefit assessment in step 4 was difficult to calculate since all costs must be viewed in a holistic perspective. Every factor ranging from environmental costs to loss of human lives needs to be quantified, and since the maritime sector usually keeps such valuations confidential, this was also not an easy task.

Boiled down, the work resulted in 8 suggestions for improvements in fire safety, which – depending on ship size – may be cost-effective to implement. The SSE Committee is expected to decide which of the following recommendations will ultimately be incorporated into SOLAS.
• Improved control of lashing
• Heat detection
• Portable IR cameras for crew to enhance manual detection
• Improved manual firefighting tools for individual container breaching and firefighting
• Manual firefighting tools that increase reach
• Methods for unmanned firefighting
• Active protection underneath hatch covers to protect from fire spread towards the deck
• Passive protection to protect from fire spread towards the deck

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