Vessel fires still the biggest issue for maritime sector warns insurer

The global maritime industry is still buckling under the inability to combat the rising levels of vessel fires.

Analysis from Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS)’ annual Safety & Shipping Review has found that while the safety of the world’s shipping sector is improving the sector is still struggling with fires and explosions on board the merchant fleet.

Although shipping losses have halved over the past decade, fires on board vessels remain among the biggest safety issues for the maritime industry, as demonstrated by incidents this week involving the Felicity Ace cargo/RoRo ship, which caught fire in the Atlantic while carrying thousands of cars and the Euroferry Olympia passenger ferry fire off the coast of Greece.

AGCS report showed that the number of fires on board large vessels has increased significantly in recent years. There was a record 40 cargo-related fire incidents alone in 2019 or one every 10 days. Across all vessel types, the number of fires/explosions resulting in total losses hit a four-year high of 10 at the end of 2020– accounting for around one in five total losses around the world.

“The shipping industry has seen its safety record improve significantly over the past decade with the number of total losses now at record lows,” explained Captain Rahul Khanna, global Head of marine risk consulting at AGCS. “However, fires on car carriers, Roll-on/Roll-off ferries (RoRos), container ships and other vessels remain among the biggest worries for the sector, as demonstrated by the recent rise in incidents.

“RoRo and car carrier vessels in particular can be more exposed to fire and stability issues than other vessels and require additional emphasis on risk management. To facilitate carriage of automobiles the internal spaces are not divided into separate sections like other cargo ships. The lack of internal bulkheads can have an adverse impact on fire safety and a small fire on one vehicle or battery can grow out of control very quickly. Vehicles are not easily accessible once loading has been completed. The large volume of air inside the open cargo decks provides a ready supply of oxygen in case of fire.  At AGCS, we look deeply into the risk management of operators and have worked with a number of companies operating ro-ro vessels to agree a robust risk management program.”

The review cited a string of notable recent incidents include – the RoRo cargo ship, the Grande America, which sank after its cargo of vehicles and containers caught fire in March 2019. In June 2020, a blaze on the car carrier Höegh Xiamen lasted for eight days before it was extinguished, while RoRo passenger ferry Cruise Bonaria also suffered a fire.

Fire/explosion is the third top cause of total losses of shipping vessels over the past decade (2011 to 2020) with 99 reported total losses, accounting for around 11% of total losses overall. The two top causes of total losses are foundered (54%) and wrecked/stranded (20%). Cargo vessels account for 40% of total losses over the past decade. (348 out of 876). Passenger/cruise ships account for less than 10% (69 out of 876).

AGCS added fires on board vessels is the fifth top cause of shipping incidents overall around the globe – There have been over 1,700 reported incidents over the past decade (across all vessel types), accounting for around 7% of all reported incidents.

“Container ship fires often start in containers, which can be the result of non-declaration or mis-declaration of hazardous cargo, such as chemicals and batteries,” It added. “When mis-declared, these might be improperly packed and stowed on-board, which can result in ignition and/or complicate detection and firefighting. The larger the number of containers on board, the higher the probability that at least one could ignite and cause a fire, and the harder it is to contain and extinguish it.

“Another contributing factor is the fire detection and fighting capabilities relative to the size of the vessel. Vessels continue to become larger every year and major incidents have shown fires can easily get out of control and result in the crew abandoning the vessel on safety grounds, thus increasing the size of the eventual loss. Awareness of this problem has been growing, but it is still a major concern.”

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