Greater vetting is required to stop misdeclared cargo posing fire risk on box ships

WITH the carrying capacity of containerships now reaching the 24,000 TEU mark, extinguishing fires on board is becoming ever more difficult

23 September 2019 - 19:00

WITH the carrying capacity of containerships now reaching the 24,000 TEU mark, extinguishing fires on board is becoming ever more difficult. The focus now needs to be on stopping misdeclared dangerous goods shipments getting on board in the first place.

A seminar hosted by shipping consultants LOC and Clyde & Co during London International Shipping Week heard that fire-fighting equipment on modern containerships was not fit for the purpose, and that the design of the ships made it nearly impossible to fight a fire once it had taken hold in a container stack, reported Lloyd's List.

Vessels were only required to have two seawater pumps for on deck fires, and CO2-based prevention systems could only work in enclosed holds, and even then were a 'single-shot' solution that had to work the first time.

With stacks on deck getting higher and wider, it was difficult and dangerous for crew to even try to put out on-deck fires.

With controlling fires being so difficult, effort should instead be put into avoiding the cause of fires, which was usually the incorrect stowage of exothermic dangerous goods such as calcium hypochlorite, one of the most frequently misdeclared hazardous cargoes.

The risk of carrying a misdeclared container might be around 0.01 per cent, according to Clyde & Co head of cargo casualty Jai Sharma.

'On a small ship you can live with that as it is very unlikely you're ever going to get one misdeclared container. But if you have 20,000 TEU it is quite likely there is going to be misdeclared cargo on every single voyage. No one will know unless something goes wrong.'

Even if misdeclarations were excluded from the reckoning, the carrier still had to identify each container properly and put it in the right place to comply with its safe stowage obligations.

'The more containers you have the more likely someone is going to press the wrong button on the computer,' Mr Sharma said.

'There is a significant risk that is expanded greatly by the large size of containerships.'

While some steps have been taken to vet the shippers more closely, carriers were still taking too much on trust, he said.

He suggested a traffic light risk assessment system that would give a green light to known shippers with a consistent record of accurate cargo declarations, and a red light going to those known to ship hazardous cargoes.

'You need a proper risk assessment,' Mr Sharma said. 'The carrier has to exercise due diligence to ensure the vessel is seaworthy but this often looks only at the physical state of the vessel. It seems to me this isn't enough, when we have information and experience, to then just take the cargo on trust.'

Additional steps that carriers should consider were effective firebreaks and firefighting equipment on board.


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