Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has published an investigation report surrounding a fire onboard a bulk carrier, Iron Chieftan, that took five days to contain and extinguish. The report highlights the lack of adequate regulatory requirements and standards to address the known risk of fire on-board self-unloading ships.
On 18 June 2018, during cargo discharge operations while alongside at Port Kembla, New South Wales (NSW), a fire broke out in the internal cargo handling spaces of the self-unloading (SUL) bulk carrier Iron Chieftain. The ship’s crew initiated an emergency response but shipboard efforts to control the fire were ineffective. The fire soon established itself and spread to the exterior of the ship, setting the discharge boom on deck alight. The ship’s crew were evacuated and shore firefighting services from Fire and Rescue New South Wales (FRNSW) took charge of the response to the fire.
The fire was contained and eventually extinguished 5 days after it started. The ship sustained substantial structural damage, including breaches of two fuel oil tanks, and key components of the SUL system were largely destroyed. The ship was declared a constructive total loss and subsequently dispatched to be recycled. There were no serious injuries or pollution of the sea reported.
The fire originated in Iron Chieftain’s C-Loop space and was likely the result of a failed bearing in the ship’s conveyor system which created the heat necessary to ignite the rubber conveyor belt. It was determined that the ship did not have an emergency contingency plan for responding to fire in the ship’s SUL spaces and that there were technical failures of the ship’s alarm systems during the emergency response to the fire. Some aspects of the shipboard response likely aided the fire’s development while others increased risk by removing shipboard capability.
The ATSB found that the risk of fire in Iron Chieftain’s C-Loop space was identified and documented by the ship’s operators, CSL Australia, as being unacceptable about 5 years before the fire. This risk rating was primarily due to the absence of an effective means of fire detection and fire suppression for the SUL system spaces. However, measures taken to address the risk were either inadequate or ineffective. The lack of adequate regulatory requirements or standards related specifically to the fire safety of SUL ships has been a factor in several fires, including Iron Chieftain.
The regulatory oversight of Iron Chieftain did not identify any deficiencies related to the safety factors identified by this investigation, or to the ship’s inherent high fire safety risk and management of that risk. ATSB has identified a safety issue related to the marine firefighting capability of FRNSW as well as other safety factors related to the inconsistent conduct of ship’s drills and Port Kembla’s emergency response plans.
“The fire on board Iron Chieftain demonstrates how the effectiveness of a shipboard response to a fire depends primarily on the ability to detect the fire at an early stage and quickly extinguish it at the source. Iron Chieftain’s self-unloading system was not equipped with a fire detection or fixed fire-extinguishing system in the C-Loop space, but nor was it required to be”, said ATSB Chief Commissioner, Greg Hood.
The ATSB recommends the introduction and improvement of international standards for suitable fire detection and fixed fire-extinguishing systems in the cargo handling spaces of self-unloading bulk carriers and the introduction of standards for the fire resistant properties of their conveyor belts.
Download the report about fire on board a bulk carrier: ATSB Iron Chieftain report 2021 05
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