Industry awareness of the significant dangers of onboard battery fires remains dangerously low, warns Stream Marine Technical

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Standardised training and regulations should come into force sooner rather than later to reduce the significant safety risks electric car batteries pose to vessels and crews, a panel of industry-leading speakers discussed at a recent webinar held by alternative fuel consultancy service Stream Marine Technical (SMT).

Part of the Stream Marine Group, SMT held the webinar in conjunction with Ship Management International to discuss how the industry can work together to deal with the huge fire risks that batteries in electric cars pose to both life and ship.

Speakers at the webinar included, Tony Int’ Hout (pictured), Director at Stream Marine Technical. Tim Springett, Policy Director, UK Chamber of Shipping, Jan Polderman, Founding Member BlueTack, specialists in marine incident management, and Kelly Malynn, ESG Strategy Lead for Marine, insurers Beazley.

Mr Springett from the UK Chamber of Shipping told delegates that corners of the industry are becoming increasingly concerned over the dangerous fire risks of Lithium-Ion Batteries (LIBs) as the proportion of vehicles powered by LIBs, being carried on Ro-Ro ferries increases. As the vehicles begin to age and the batteries deteriorate, the risk of dangerous fires steadily increases, he explained.

Mr Int’ Hout, from Stream Marine Technical, explained battery fires are normally created from two initiating causes, such as damage to the battery caused by a collision, incorrect charging regime or wrong charging, incorrect installation, a battery being incorrectly stored, or a malfunction of the battery.

Talking about the current training requirements for crews, Mr Int’ Hout, said: “The regulations are not really robust enough yet. Even if you have 85 firefighters onboard, similar to a standard cruise ship, they can respond to the fire very quickly, but the challenge lies with dealing with a battery fire, they are very hard to put out. We do not have enough training in fire safety with any of the alternative fuels that are coming into the industry.”

There have been 387 LIBs fires since 2012, Mr Springett reported. “While this figure is relatively low when you take into account there are 16million electric vehicles globally, there is little training or awareness to ensure crews know what to do when faced with a LIB fire,” he said.

Talking about the dangers, he explained: “When these fires do occur they are much more difficult to put out, compared to other types of fires crews have to put out. The triangle of fire – heat, fuel, oxygen – is the first thing one learns on a fire safety course. But with LIBs there is a tetrahedron of fire. There is an additional effect of a chemical chain reaction. Once the thermal runway starts, that fire is unstoppable. Flames in LIB fires will be pulled towards the nearest energy source.”

“STCW fire safety training is based on completely different types of fires and burning materials, so this is something that should be addressed. The industry should look at what the appropriate requirements for training are going forward.”

The IMO is to begin a review of the STCW fire safety training in 2025, but even then it will take two years to complete and then seven years to adopt, warned Mr Springett. The UK Chamber of Shipping is treating the dangers of LIB fires as a priority, he added, and it will be looking at setting out a number of proposals and guidelines that can be turned into legislation, and eventually adopted by the IMO.
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Mr Polderman, from salvage incident firm BlueTack highlighted the added dangers of toxic fumes and vapours that come from a battery fire, along with the added risk of electrocution.

He said: “We believe the way forward for the industry is to collect data, analyse it, develop new systems or re-develop existing systems, test new ideas – and this is important, test, re-test and test again, develop training for responders and build further on experience.”

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