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How to detect fire and extinguish at an early stage onboard a cargo ship?

No matter how we have progressed on tackling with firefighting on board, it can only take one container to start a fire onboard a large vessel. Cargo fires are not only an environmental concern but also cause large losses leading to severe business disruption and operator's reputational damage. Major fires on container vessels are among the largest hazards, as reported by the global shipping industry. We have highlighted below some key guidelines on detecting and extinguishing a fire at an early stage.

Fire in Cargo Hold : The initial action for dealing with a fire in a cargo hold will be the same regardless of whether a ship is at sea or in port. Upon discovering a fire, either visually or through the smoke detector, the Emergency Alarm must be sounded at once, and the Emergency Party mustered. The Chief Officer or the Senior Deck Officer onboard is to direct the Emergency Party. His actions are to be governed by circumstances, but he must first investigate the situation and assess the gravity of the fire.

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A search must be done while commencing remedial action if personnel are or have been working on the affected hold. The investigation is to determine if the fire can be dealt with using hoses, or if the fixed fire extinguishing system will be required. Whatever the outcome, the Emergency Party must rig fire hoses around the affected hold and cool the deck. The method of extinguishing the fire will depend on the fixed firefighting systems fitted. Container vessels are normally fitted with either water spray system or CO2 or in some cases both.

The following are further guidelines should the fixed fire extinguishing system be required: When such a fire occurs in port, the local Fire Service must be called without delay. Upon arrival, the Senior Fire Service Officer will usually assume control of the operation. Remember that the concentration of CO2 in the hold must be maintained to compensate for leakage. Re-ignition is likely to occur if the hatch is opened too soon and this may well be uncontrollable. Should an entry be essential, every precaution must be taken to prevent re-ignition and the temperature of the hold carefully monitored.


Fires In Containers

No matter how carefully cargo is booked, there would still be cases of fire originating in containers. Despite the International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirements that shippers declare container contents, there are still many cases where cargo is not being properly declared. Once the cargo is inside containers, it is not easy to know whether their contents should be classified as D.G. or not. Therefore tackling a fire at a later stage due to such misdeclaration might be a daunting task. A fire which has started while stuffing or shortly after closing an ISO container may not become apparent until after that container is loaded on to the ship and is at sea. It is particularly important, therefore, that all possible precautions are taken to prevent such an occurrence. Containers with combustible cargoes should be stuffed in a controlled environment, and their contents properly declared. Cargoes liable to spontaneously combust "in stow" should not be unnecessarily ventilated and should be checked regularly for a rise in temperature.

The securing of wheeled transport, containers, and other cargo on the vehicle decks of Ro-Ro vessels must be arranged so that firefighting equipment remains unobstructed and fully accessible during loading, discharging, and passage. This includes valves, emergency pumps, hoses, etc.

The difficulties of fighting fires in containers must be well understood by all personnel. The details of all hazardous containers, together with the fire fighting instructions for each hazardous container, must be kept on the bridge. Mobile fire fighting equipment, such as hi-ex generators, water mist lances, and mobile water monitors should be maintained in good condition and readiness.

Note: Container vessels designed to carry containers on or above the weather deck constructed on or after 1st January 2016 are required to carry at least one water mist lance. Modern vessels have been fitted with fixed water spraying systems (water curtains, large monitors, deluge systems). Frequent and realistic drills must occur, and contingency plans are to be drawn up for fighting fires in the most inaccessible container.

Matters that require attention in fire

Fire/explosion includes ships where fire/explosion is the first event reported, or where fire/explosion results from hull/machinery damage. Fire detection and extinguishing at a very early stage is most important as most big fires start small. At least the following matters are to be considered:
  1. Record status of all crew members;
  2. Closure of Fire flaps, Doors or other Ventilation openings to the area under fire;
  3. Fight the fire with all available means;
  4. Determine the limits of the fire in all directions and keep patrolling these areas throughout the fire;
  5. In case of E/R fire ,closing the Quick closing valves, Stopping Fuel pumps and Purifiers
  6. Changing course, slowing down or even stopping to reduce wind impact;
  7. Full or partial evacuation of areas or the entire vessel;
  8. Is assistance needed from external sources;
  9. ix) Send notifications as soon as possible;

Caution by place of fire: Fire in Accommodation

Fire in Machinery Space
  1. For a small, local fire involving oil in e.g., the bilges, fire extinguishing in an early stage with Sand, Foam and Carbon dioxide Fire Extinguishers may be effective. Be sure to use Spray nozzles if fire hoses are used, and be careful not to spread the fire by the spray;
  2. For a fire of Electric equipment including switchboards, Shut down the power and use Carbon dioxide Fire Extinguishers;
  3. Shut Ventilation down and Close openings leave only one Fan operating with on the Exhaust mode for drawing out smoke.
  4. Stop Fuel pumps and Purifiers and activate the Quick closing valves if the fire threatens to spread;
  5. Should a fire become a big one, evacuate and close the machinery space, and apply Fixed Carbon Dioxide or other total Flooding systems after confirmation that nobody remains inside the machinery space.

Fire in a Cargo Hold (Container Vessels / General Cargo Boats)
  1. Close all Openings, including Ventilators, and apply Carbon dioxide or Spray water to extinguish the fire. If tarpaulin, canvas or the like is used for sealing, Keep it wet.
  2. Keep dampers, and covers for these hatches and ventilators closed until it is confirmed that the fire is completely put out.
  3. Do not enter the cargo hold, unless the fire has been extinguished and confirmed absolutely in a safe condition to entry, including applying full ventilating and checking for oxygen and other gases.

Caution about fire extinguishing methods

Fire extinguishing by Carbon Dioxide - Release Carbon dioxide gas from the Prescribed number of cylinders into the compartment on fire, after which a fixed amount of the gas shall be again released as per the ships CO2 F.E. system manual. (eg. a fixed amount every 30min.) Release the Full dedicated bank for E/R in the case of Fire in Engine Room at One Go. On Containerships, confirm from EmS in IMDG Code regarding Suitability of Fighting. Fire with Water

Caution about fire onboard tanker and gas carrier

Also to be followed a mutual agreement between ship and shore for Fire protection and Fighting procedure at pre-conference with Ship-Shore Checklist, the Master should consider to take below actions:
  1. In case of a fire during Cargo operation, Stop all Cargo operation-related work Immediately, shut Shore connection valves and prepare for Taking the vessel offshore.
  2. Request Tug boats and assistance of Shore Fire-Fighting Agencies.
  3. For a Fire in Tanks, carry out fire extinguishing operation keeping in mind the possibility of the generation of an Explosion accident following the fire, and pay maximal attention to the safety of Human Lives.
  4. For a fire in a tank, watering onto the upper deck and shell plating is effective in cooling the hull and tanks.
  5. Continuous injection of maximum Inert gas into the tank is very effective in fire fighting and prevention against explosion.
  6. Foam fire extinguishing system should be used so that the foam flows only in one way to cover the fire uniformly and does not cause any unnecessary disturbances.
  7. For a fire at sea, maneuver the vessel (course and speed) so that the location of the Fire is Leeward, and approach the nearest port to get assistance.

Caution about reporting to external sources

For reports on the occurrence of a fire to external parties, such as other ships adjacent to the vessel, coastal radio stations, and the Coast Guard of each country, it should be clearly distinguished between an Urgency Message and a Distress Message. The Urgency message is meant to advise that the vessel's continuous attention is required whereas the Distress Message requires a positive rescue.

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