Fire at sea is always a great risk

Lot of discussions has been done about safety of container shipping relating to recent devastating container ship fires. Korean carrier KMTC was the latest victim when their vessel blazed in Thai port. Not that long-ago Maersk Honam (15,262 TEU) encountered enormous fire at sea near Oman. MSC Daniela (13,798) lost containers to a blaze near Sri Lanka in 2017. APL Austria also suffered similar faith when anchored off South-Africa in 2017. List goes on but I think the point is clear.

It is difficult to determine the exact reason for such fires, but all clues point to misdeclared cargo. Declaring container containing hazardous or flammable materials as standard low-risk container. Shipper can save few pennies but ended up burning the whole vessel and half of its cargo. Hope all parties had proper insurances.

And it is not just about the money. Fire at sea is always a great risk when help isn’t readily available. The burning of Honam resulted in 5 seamen losing their lives. Five people had to die because somebody wanted to save few pennies by misdelcaring the cargo. KMTC Hongkong burning in Thailand resulted in toxic gases being emitted affecting people nearby port and fishermen report barrels containing toxic materials floating in the sea. Great harm to people and the environment.

It is obvious that when ports need to get ships in and out as fast as possible, there is chronical lack of space in the port area, boxes are stacked and sealed, it is impossible for ports to confirm what the containers actually contain. My head starts to spin when I even think the amount of extra work it would require in a port like Singapore of Shanghai to find, move, open and reseal all the containers moving through those ports. It is simply not feasible solution to check the containers carefully at ports. But a way must be found to stop the blazes killing seamen, ruining the environment and costing millions.

What could the way then be?

Trendy solutions like blockchain and drones don’t seem to be helpful here.

Carriers could add extra firefighting gear into their vessels. If (=when) another container catches fire vessel could pump even more water over the cargo. Hope the doors are closed tight on innocent containers or somebody has to pay the damages. This approach would not solve anything, as all the toxins would still leak into the sea and increased cost would be pushed down to shippers, which could even encourage further misdeclaration of containers.

How about we put the owner of the container to take more responsibility on the fire they caused? But how do you find the exact container that started the fire when hundreds of containers burned. Not an easy task. It isn’t enough to find the row or the tier only, but the exact one container must be identified accurately. Claiming damages from an innocent shipper is danger here. Do we have to put cameras in front of each and every container filming them through the whole voyage? How could that be done even in theory? Amount of data would be enormous and where would the cameras even be attached?. Maybe some censors sniffing the door of each container? First censor to beep is the guilty container. Can it be guaranteed the sniffers work through the whole voyage? And who is going to pay for them? Not that realistic either...

Luckily the shipping industry is filled with people smarter than me, and I am confident the solution to this problem can be found. But it has to be found quickly –scares me to even imagine 20,000+ TEU vessel on fire and sinking with the crew and the cargo. I hope nobody introduces any bigger ships before this problem has been solved!

About Author

Tuomo Keltto

Tuomo Keltto is a logistics engineer who continued his studies in Seoul, South Korea. He studied at the Korean Government scholarship for a Master's degree in international trade and logistics. Now he is back in Finland and he works at Neste in Porvoo. - He has previously been in Steveco Hietanen for three summers as a temporary stevedore and as a foreman for one summer.