Monthly Archives: July 2021

Huge potential to improve fire safety on container ships


Fires on container ships can lead to loss of both life and vast quantities of material assets. Nevertheless, expertise in this area appears to be somewhat lacking.

Container ships have grown exponentially in size in recent years, while crews have shrunk. Neither have technical solutions and regulations in the area followed the dimensional growth of modern ships. There is a poor overview of what is being shipped, which prevents potentially flammable cargo from being placed in appropriate locations on the ship, as well as a lack of certainty that appropriate fire safety systems are installed. Lack of expertise or simple carelessness can mean that freight becomes mixed when inside containers. As a result, flammable materials that will not combust when stored in isolation end up being stored with materials that can easily ignite.

These are some of the many challenges that DBI (The Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology) discovered when it conducted the CONTAIN project.

– Incidents are rare, but the extent of injuries is potentially enormous, with loss of both human lives and valuable assets worth many millions of Danish kroner. There is also very limited expertise in this area. The aim of the project was to give us insight into the nature of fires in container ship cargo holds. We also examined technical, human and organisational aspects, says Thomas Hulin, project manager at DBI.

Is the crew able to fight fires?
Container freight is a complex sector, which is precisely part of the problem. The sector involves numerous stakeholders: customers, forwarding companies, shipping companies, port authorities, international classification companies and insurance companies, who each consider their own contributions, while there is little knowledge about the issue as a whole.

The project identified various issues that were of interest. One thing that came to light was a degree of uncertainty as to whether crews were suitably equipped to fight fires on board their ships. Many container ship cargo hold fires would be challenging even for professional firefighting teams on shore.

– When a container ship caught fire in Hamburg in September 2016, it took 100 firefighters from local emergency services to bring the fire under control. This is impossible when a ship is at sea, which raises the question of what can be demanded and expected of increasingly smaller crews, who are not even professional firefighters. There is also the question of when a crew should give up attempts to fight a fire and evacuate the ship, as there are currently no regulations for such scenarios today, says Alexander Kleiman, a project manager at DBI.

Ships are increasing in size
Regulations in this sector have also not followed the development that ships continue to increase in size.

– Existing fire safety regulations and the use of fire safety systems are based on the needs of smaller ships and do not have the same effect on ships of the sizes we see today. Fire extinguishing systems, for example, are often intended to extinguish fires in a specific type of cargo and not suitable for other types of fires. We see that a lot of cargo is not correctly declared or is mixed with other types of cargo that the fire extinguishing system is not effective against, says Alexander Kleiman.

At the same time, fire extinguishing systems are often dimensioned to simply limit the spread of the fire, as the crew attempts to extinguish it. This gives rise to a consideration of whether the strategy for the future could be to isolate a fire from the rest of the ship and either let it burn out or wait for assistance rather than fighting it with possible loss of life as a result.

Fire spread after 17 minutes
In connection with the CONTAIN project, DBI has also tested how containers behave in the event of a fire and how fire spreads from container to container. Our tests show that a fire in a container can spread through the door after 17 minutes, that a burning container can ignite the floor of a container above after 20 minutes, and that radiated heat can ignite the contents of adjacent containers.

– We also saw that the rubber container door seals caused drippage of burning droplets when the fire broke through, which can also cause a fire to spread. We are still in the early phase of the collection of technical knowledge about this area, but the knowledge we gain will be highly valuable, particularly with regard to where fire detection and extinguishing systems should be located, says Thomas Hulin. Simulations have also been produced from the fire test data about how a fire spreads in a below-deck cargo hold full of stacked containers.

– We can use data to simulate and investigate the effect of various fire extinguishing systems which can, in the long term, also include factors such as construction statics and how they are affected by a fire. There is no tradition for this type of ‘fire safety engineering’ when building container ships, but it is a discipline that has the potential to offer great opportunities to improve fire safety, says Thomas Hulin.

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Facing this summer’s fire risks: “We have become much better at dealing with forest fires”

“We have become much better at dealing with forest fires,” says Leif Sandahl, fire engineer and expert on forest fires at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, MSB. “After the devastating forest fires of 2014 and 2018, we have significantly increased our knowledge and the local rescue services collaborate more and share resources so that even the smallest town in the most depopulated sparsely populated areas in the north has the opportunity to get help.”

- We also have access to better data, maps, analyzes and models and better forecasts to be able to manage fire risks. We have also strengthened our air resources by now having several helicopters and smaller scooping aircraft on standby via MSB, which can support the firefighting work on the ground. And not least, we have learned and gained many valuable insights. However, I wonder how we would cope with such an exceptional summer as 2018 with the extreme drought and heat that lasted for a very long time, says Leif Sandahl.

The weather should therefore not be underestimated as the cause behind forest fires and the extreme fire processes that can occur with large burned areas. It has not been classified as a climate issue (yet) – but one thing is clear: the summer of 2018 was exceptional, according to experts. In addition to drought and heat for a long time, there are unusually many thunderstorms and thousands of lightning strikes that hit an impoverished, dry forest while there were unusually many ignitions caused by rail traffic – it is clear that it was not a coincidence that forest fires became so large in 2018. Leif Sandahl emphasizes, however, that the development of fire and the spread of fire in 2014 was even more extreme, partly because aviation fires arose and spread several kilometers over lakes.

Local resources are needed

Were we not sufficiently prepared for the great forest fires? The expertise is that the fire risks in the years before 2000 were worse and perhaps the preparations were better then. According to researchers at RISE, the indicators for fire have been lower over the past 20 years and one can speculate that one may have mentally relaxed and not been prepared for large fires to rage again.

Add to that the fact that there have been major structural changes in society that impair fire safety. The forests that are on fire are mainly in Norrland and in the depopulated sparsely populated areas there are few local fire stations left. Forest owners often live far away from their forest lands, which also does not facilitate monitoring and access to resources.

- We would probably need to engage more volunteers in the area, who are nearby and can quickly help, says Leif Sandahl.

When the Rescue Service has to drive a longer distance on rugged forest roads – and when resource reinforcements are needed, they can have 10 300 km to the accident site – the important first effort often comes (too) late if there are no local resources in place that can start the firefighting work. Even if the rescue services cooperate and thus have access to more resources, there are still long distances to reach the fire. Successful firefighting work is about quickly attacking the small fires and extinguishing them so that they do not have time to grow and guarding any hidden embers so that the fire does not flare up again. The major fires in 2018 were flaring fires that had been extinguished for 70% of the burned area. The landowner is responsible for guarding after a forest fire that has been extinguished, but the risk is that there remain hidden embers. How this important surveillance work is to be handled in order to avoid unnecessary re-ignitions is being worked on by a group within Skogforsk, the Swedish Forestry Research Institute.

There is another problem, says Leif Sandahl.

- We have about 2-3000 unnecessary fire incidents in forests and land per year. And it is not forestry that is careless. A small fire can develop into a large fire if it is not extinguished quickly, within 1-2 days, says Leif Sandahl.

We must also make the public better understand the risks and what causes fires and behave accordingly when staying in nature, Sandahl concludes.


Summer car welding causes unnecessary fires every spring

Every spring, summer car welding and other hot work causes unnecessary fires. A high risk of fire is caused, for example, by failure to protect the working environment. This spring, a few fires have already been caused by hot work related to car repair, and more are likely to be expected. Last year, a total of 25 car repair fires broke out. Experts from the Finnish National Rescue Association have some practical advice on how to avoid the last-minute burning of the car you wanted to repair.

There were 25 fires related to car tuning last year, and 21 the year before. The numbers are not that large, but the loss of a beloved car can be upsetting, and the fire could also cost lives or cause damage to other property. Finnish National Rescue Association offers safety information on how to avoid car repair fires this spring. Many car enthusiasts are already anxious to get behind the wheel of their summer cars, but there are a few things you could do to ensure that you eventually get on the road safely.

‘A large number of the fires are caused by failure to ensure the protection and tidiness of the working environment. If you’re using an angle grinder, the working area must be protected with a special spark protection fabric or, for example, a protective shield made of sheet metal, to prevent sparks from spreading and starting a fire,’ says Heli Hätönen, Head of Training at Finnish National Rescue Association.

It is also a good idea to inspect the environment before starting. Fires have been started, for example, when welding sparks or splatters have set fire to oil or debris on the floor. In addition to protection, the car tuner should also be aware of how heat behaves. When metal heats up, the heat is conducted in the metal. That is why, for example, the upholstery of the car should be removed and the petrol in the fuel tank replaced with water, if welding work is done near them.

Welding is not permitted in garages

Insurance companies’ terms and conditions usually forbid welding and other hot work in garages and carports. The warehouses and recreational facilities of apartment buildings are also not suitable for the purpose, as they are not designed to withstand fire hazardous or potentially explosive activities.

Where, then, can welding be done, if not near a residential building? Is a barn-connected warehouse or a hangar okay, if the tuning area is separated from other areas with a Gyproc plasterboard or a fire-resistant curtain? According to Ms Hätönen, this depends on the terms and conditions of the property insurance, which should always be reviewed before starting.

Outdoor spaces are often easier but pose a risk of grass or forest fires. No hot work should be done in windy weather or during grass and forest fire warnings. A bigger sand or asphalt area would be ideal, provided that there are no buildings nearby. A distance of 15–20 meters to buildings and other cars is not exaggeration, as sparks can fly for up to tens of meters. However, it is important to stop sparks from spreading from the hot work area.

What if you just can’t wait to get on the open road with your fabulous summer car? Can’t safety be compromised just a little bit, if you’re in a hurry and have a spring in your step?

‘As a car enthusiast, you’ve probably already put a lot of time and effort into renovating the car, so for goodness’ sake, don’t burn it now!’, Ilpo Leino, Senior Specialist at Finnish National Rescue Association, cries out. ‘People eager to ride the car and even your buddy’s car may also be at risk, if you tune them together and sparks start to spread,’ Mr Leino says.

Speaking of sparks spreading, the Rescue Association’s experts have some practical advice to offer on that, too. The angle grinder can be directed so that the sparks cannot fly far, and the interior of the car can be protected with a fire-resistant fabric. A fire blanket won’t work, however, as the sparks will burn through it.

Reserve enough time for post-control

Even if you have adhered to all of these welding safety measures, you cannot leave the area immediately after you’ve finished your work. The experts from Finnish National Rescue Association recommend monitoring the area for smoldering for at least an hour after you’ve finished.

‘You may not notice a smoldering fire until it bursts into flames’, reminds Ms Hätönen.

‘It is also advisable to keep first-aid fire extinguishing equipment nearby and practice using them in advance, so that you won’t put yourself in danger,’ she continues.

  • hings car enthusiasts should know about safe tuning:
  • Check the insurance company’s terms and conditions about the safety regulations.
  • Hot work, such as welding, cannot be done in a garage or inside or near a residential building.
  • When welding, other vehicles must be far enough away, the upholstery of the car should be removed as much as needed, the petrol tank should be removed or filled with water, and the tyres should be protected or removed.
  • Remove all combustible materials and liquids as well as gas cylinders from the working area.
  • When tuning the car outdoors, consider the risk of forest or grass fires and check the warnings issued by the Finnish Meteorological Institute: fi/varoitukset.
  • Sparks can fly for tens of meters.
  • Direct the angle grinder so that the sparks cannot fly far.
  • A fire-resistant fabric can be used as a protective cover to prevent sparks from flying to the surrounding environment. A fire blanket won’t do, as the sparks will burn through it.
  • Have some water and first-aid fire extinguishing equipment nearby and learn how to put out a starting fire.
  • Do not weld just before you’re about to leave, but watch the car and the surrounding area for at least an hour, even longer if necessary.