Containers fires! Should we regulate more?

Recent appeal asks for increased for fire protection requirements on board of container carriers

New appeals have been done recently for increased  statutory requirements for the mitigation of the cargo hold fire on board of container carriers (see the footnote links).


Working close to the offshore branch of the maritime industry, I start thinking more in terms of risks and actions for eliminating and mitigating risks, rather in terms of following prescriptive requirements just because are in the books of regulations. 

From the perspective of risks, the problem of cargo hold fire on board of container carriers looks like a bowtie:

- The middle point of the bowtie is the event (accident) - the fire.

- On the pre-event (causal) side of the bowtie sit the people filing the containers and moving the container until it is loaded into ship.

- On the post-event side of the bowtie are the actions for eliminating or mitigating the results of the event. These actions look mainly to the ship, as the actions proposed by IUMI.


The pre-event (causal) side of the bowtie


Today it is not clear for me if there are any mitigation actions on the pre-event part of the bowtie where bits and bobs fill the container and the container is transported for loading on board.

I expect that the container’s cargo respect the rules and regulations and clearly and trustful recorded and made available to all parties. I expect this because the responsibilities in case of event are clearer if the information about the container's path from empty to loaded on board and unloaded after, is clearly and trustful recorded, and available,

Proposals are already issued on the public space for considering the block chain solutions for improving the logistic of containers’ transport.

From where I stand, block chains could be a way for addressing the actions of the people filling the container and, eventually, this could be a way to make these parties more responsible and accountable.


On the event mitigation side are two aspects:

- The container, and

- The ship

On the post-event side of the bowtie - the container

The first mitigation actions could be done on the container itself.

So what could be done to eliminate the event (fire) inside the container?

It would be possible to detect the fire and fill with CO2 or other gas the container? Yes! The gas could be supplied from the unit or from outside the unit (station on board of the ship?)… and the technical exaltation could go further on and on.

I know that, despite the fact that this is perfectly possible technically, this proposal sounds unrealistic because something like this would impact the cost in general (space, maintenance, availability, etc). 

However, such solution would address exactly some of the facts pointed out by IUMI about the possibility to eliminate the source of the fire since it is not affecting too many other containers. 

In the defence of this solution, it has to be said that not all containers should be such, and here we come back to the point where we need to trust the information transmitted about the container. 

If this information can be trusted, some software would be capable to identify what shall not be loaded into the same container.

If loading hazardous combinations can’t be avoided, the special container will be used. 

I assume that the costs associated with using special containers will stimulate the stakeholders of the process to make from such cases the exception and not the rule.

On the event mitigation side - The ship

IUMI proposes a set of mandatory requirements including the installation firefighting systems dedicated to each cargo hold and fire detection systems in cargo holds (see the 2017 position paper, the link is provide below).

Yes – what it is proposed by IUMI can be done. The proposals are logical and the requirements are not horrendous… but still would make the vessel more expensive and more complex. 

Yes - the industry could continue adding layers of regulations.

However, on the same logic, the structural engineer can build a very strong vessel, almost eternal, what would transport very, but very little cargo or the vessel should stay safely moored ashore because the safest vessel is the vessel moored in harbour.

It is interesting noting also that the troubles related to containers are not only the risk of fire but the overloading is claimed as a constant source of troubles as well. These troubles are so significant that in some situations it was proposed that each container to be weighed before loading. 

But, why to wait until loading because the container was lifted before few times and every lift could provide the weight information what could be logged in and confirmed by a block chain type transaction? 


My opinion...

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the silver bullet of these controversies stays only into the technological solutions as block chains technology.

I think that on top of all it is very important just remembering all the time that the good practices, the good sense and the professional discipline and ethic are the simplest and cheapest ways to avoid risks.


The first picture of this post is sourced from the IUMI position paper and represents the proposal for installing firefighting systems dedicated to each cargo hold. 

The second picture was shot by Ramona Popa and it is a visual metaphor about fire on board. 

Thank you Ramona! 

It would be great if the only fires on board would be the fires of our dreams and souls!


This text represents only the author personal opinion about the engineering topics presented. This personal opinion is not comprehensive and definitive and it is rather an invitation for discussions, comments and feedback and shall be considered accordingly.

The author can’ take any responsibility for any type of use of this text.