Ever since man was able to transport goods by sea, hazards and dangers have existed to the cargo involved. Starting from the ancient Greeks, the design and size of ships continued to evolve to match the demand that was growing in an increasingly connected society. In the 20th century sea transport became more even extensive as our society became more globalised and technology more developed.
There is no doubt that cargo transport by sea has drastically evolved over the years. However, as with anything, with larger volumes and varieties of goods carried, more risk emerged. Container fires are unfortunately very common – today they happen on average every 66 days. It is up to industry experts to try to figure out a way to prevent or contain catastrophes – and it looks like the Danish company Viking has come up with a solution that will help shippers mitigate such risks with the HydroPen.
History of container fires
Whenever a large fire breaks out aboard a ship, the cargo on board is determined to be the cause. The contents of containers can shift around, burn, explode or even liquify if proper storage and handling is not carried out.
Following many disasters at sea that caused either massive losses in life or in cargo, the International Maritime Organization came up with regulations to try to prevent or minimise such disasters in 1958. Because of this, a lot of dangerous freight can be tracked. Freightwaves reports that today, 10% of 60 million of maritime containers moved globally are declared as dangerous goods under the IMO regulations. Unfortunately, 1/5th of those are either poorly packed or incorrectly identified – therewith increasing risk of container fires and potential maritime disasters.
Common causes of container fires
There have been quite a few large container fires in recent history. The first step to eliminating such disasters would be for the industry to identify the risks, follow the safety standards, and develop feasible fire prevention and containment technologies.
The most common cause of container fire continues to be misdeclaration of container cargo. This could be assigned to either clerical errors or to nefarious activities, but in both cases can lead to huge destructions of property and a loss of life. Another cause could be improper container storage. In the past, dangerous seas have caused shifts in improperly secured containers aboard ships, which then resulted in fires or explosions. Finally, the third most common cause is improper fire containment, control equipment and staff training. Better fire-fighting equipment on board the ships, with crew that is fully trained in its usage, could help offset the fire risks at sea.
Other common causes of ship fires can be assigned to:
- Engine malfunction
- Improper electrical wiring
- Improper handling of kitchen equipment on board of vessels
- Mislabelled combustible cargo
After each catastrophe, industry partners and insurance companies have tried to carry out analyses to determine what the causes were, and thus help prevent similar fiascos in the future. Many insurance companies have already stressed the need to promote better ship designs and fire-fighting equipment to help the crew manage any potential misfortunes (Allianz Global).
New technologies seem to be the answer. Recently, the Nordic company Viking has come up with a new tool – the HydroPen – which has promising potential. This tool is an “innovative, water-based drilling machine that enables crew to effectively and efficiently fight container fires high up in the stack.” It consists of two components – a lift to raise a drill or spray unit to the location of a fire and the unit itself.
How does it work?
In the event of a fire inside a container on board of a ship, the HydroPen can drill through a standard container door or wall. It then can use a special hose, which is connected to the vessel’s fire main. Using pressurised water, it can spray the insides of the container and put out the fire before it can spread beyond the container (causing more damage to other cargo and potentially the vessel itself. With proper training, this tool could potentially prevent large maritime disasters.
There is no doubt that the shipping industry continues to evolve – with larger distances, larger shipments, and a larger variety of cargo. For the shipping industry to remain safe and efficient, it needs highly trained staff that know how to protect the cargo during the vessel trajectories, employees that know how to properly label cargo, and innovative technological solutions that can help mitigate any potential risks that may arise from circumstances out of our control.
Vessel operations are highly complex. At the Escola Europea – Intermodal Transport we offer an array of courses that can help you expand your knowledge of the industry from the perspective of the shipper, the freight forwarder, the port authority and the end client. If you are interested in knowing more, you can check out our available courses or contact us directly for more information.
- Viking Lifesaving Equipment A/S : https://www.viking-life.com/en/hydropen
- Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty: https://www.agcs.allianz.com/news-and-insights/expert-risk-articles/container-ship-fires.html
- The Krist Law Firm: https://www.houstoninjurylawyer.com/causes-of-container-ship-fires/
- American Shipper. Maritime History Notes: Hazards of the Sea. https://www.freightwaves.com/news/maritime-history-notes-shipboard-cargo-concerns