The issue of cargo fires needs to be tackled further

Cargo fires are a well known challenge amongst shipping industry stakeholders. Fire onboard can result in major casualties, including loss of life. Yet, fire safety remains the most common ship deficiency area.

According to the Allianz Safety Shipping Review 2023, misdiclared cargo as well as new dangerous goods, such as chemicals, lithium-ion batteries and charcoal have become increasingly documented. In addition, colossal container vessels, in which the risk multiplies, are gaining in popularity.

Even though fire is one of the biggest causes of general average claims on container vessels, and one of the main causes of total losses across all vessel types, Port State Control (PSC) data analysis from the last five years shows that there is a lot of concern for onboard fire safety. In their latest Annual PSC Reports USCG, Tokyo MoU, Indian MoU and Cyprus all found that fire was the most common deficiency area.

Mislabelled cargo

As the Allianz report explains, labelling a cargo as dangerous is more expensive and therefore some companies try to circumvent this by labeling items such as fireworks as toys or lithium-ion batteries as computer parts for example.

“Mis-declaration of cargo is an important factor in many container fires, but no real holistic solution to this problem is in sight. Currently, each shipping company and jurisdiction has its own requirements while the rate of container inspections in many countries is low,” said Marcel Ackermann, Global Product Leader Cargo at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS).

Lithium-ion fire risk

Decarbonization and electrification are increasing the number of shipping goods that contain Li-ion batteries, from electric vehicles to a wide range of consumer and electronic goods, Allianz noted. The main dangers of Li-ion batteries include fire, explosion, and thermal runaway.

Furthermore, Allianz points out that most ships lack suitable fire protection, firefighting capabilities, and detection systems to tackle such fires at sea, which has been made more difficult by the dramatic increase in ship size.

Thermal runaway
Thermal runaway can develop as a result of an internal short circuit caused by physical damage to the battery or inadequate battery maintenance. The heat created inside these batteries exceeds the quantity that can be expelled. As a result, the electrolyte barrier, which is a flammable liquid, is damaged. The battery then short-circuits, causing heat propagation to spread to the other cells and damage them.

In addition, as these batteries are a newly introduced materials, most crew does not have any training on how to prevent fires caused by Li-ion batteries or how to handle them in case they happen.

Looking forward

According to Captain Rahul Khanna, Global Head of Marine Risk Consulting at AGCS, one of the main challenges to tackle cargo fires is how to regulate a global industry in which millions of diversified containers are transported every year. Encouraging initiatives recently launched by the private sector have shown increasing interest in battling cargo fires.

As an example The Cargo Fire & Loss Innovation Initiative was launched this February by Safetytech Accelerator along with major industry stakeholders such as Evergreen Line, HMM, Lloyd’s Register, Maersk, the Offen Group, ONE (Ocean Network Express) and Seaspan as Anchor Partners aiming at reducing cargo fires and losses overboard.

In late April, the International Group of P&I Clubs, TT Club and ICHCA, Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS) published Lithium-Ion Batteries in Containers Guidelines in which all stakeholders involved in the carriage of Lithium‐Ion Batteries in containers were asked to carefully review and determine if and how they can be implemented.

Global organization have shown interest as well. In March, European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) released the CARGOSAFE study, with the goal of identifying cost-effective risk control options for cargo fires, dealing with the dimensions of the problem for both existing ships and newbuilds.

According to EMSA’s CARGOSAFE survey, the high-risk areas which need to be addressed in each protection layer are:
Prevention: reduce the fire occurrence, particularly in relation to the misdeclaration/undeclaration or dangerous cargo.
Detection: detected sufficiently early to try a local extinguishment by crew or release a first shot of extinguishing agent.
Firefighting: extinguishing or at least control the fire in the hold of origin for a long period of time.
Containment: control the fire at the bay of origin or the bay above the hold of origin.

On the regulatory front, IMO’s MSC 107 is expected to approve and subsequently adopt these draft SOLAS amendments that will mainly apply to passenger ships constructed on or after 1 January 2026 and include requirements for:
a fixed fire detection and fire alarm system to be provided for the area on the weather deck intended for the carriage of vehicles;
an effective video monitoring system shall be arranged in vehicle, special category and ro-ro spaces for continuous monitoring of these spaces;
structural fire protection in passenger ships carrying more than 36 passengers, including fire insulation of boundary bulkheads and decks of special category and ro-ro spaces; and
a fixed water-based fire-extinguishing system based on monitor(s) to be installed in order to cover weather decks intended for the carriage of vehicles.

Click here to request a copy of the full report.


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