What Can The Ship Do? Tackling Fires On Board Container Ships

TT PI Ship fire series webinar 2
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This article summarises key points from a webinar discussing firefighting capabilities and challenges on container ships. The webinar featured presentations from maritime experts Nick Haslam and John Gao, followed by a Q&A session.

Comparing Firefighting On Land and At Sea

Firefighter John Gao highlighted major differences between land-based and ship-based firefighting:

  • Firefighter training is far more extensive on land - 12 weeks initially versus 2.5 days at sea.
  • Land-based firefighters have better protective equipment and breathing apparatus with longer durations.
  • Buildings have more fire-resistant compartments and easier access than ships.
  • Land-based firefighters have faster backup, while ships may wait hours or days.
  • A typical high-rise response would have 20 firefighters, comparable to 23 crew on a ship. But the ship's crew has far less training and experience.
  • Ships require improvising with available equipment and tricky access situations.

Firefighting Equipment and Training on Ships

  • STCW requires basic and advanced courses in firefighting for seafarers, but the training is very limited compared to land-based firefighters.
  • Ships must have fire hoses, mobile water monitors (MWMs), breathing apparatus, and more. However, equipment can be difficult to maneuver around enormous modern container ships.
  • MWMs weigh 20+ kg and may need to be hauled up 5+ decks, competing for limited breathing apparatus air.

Challenges of Container Ship Fires

  • Fires often spread rapidly before detection, escalating beyond basic firefighting training and equipment.
  • Most containers are not classified as dangerous but still contain plastics and chemicals that can react explosively and release toxic gases.
  • Delayed CO2 release into cargo holds allows fires to grow too large to be suppressed. CO2 effectiveness is also limited by non-gas-tight hatch covers.
  • Boundary cooling can help control fires but manual interior firefighting is extremely dangerous and difficult.

Potential Improvements in Fighting Container Ship Fires

  • Earlier fire detection and suppression would make a major difference.
  • Additional firefighting equipment like fixed water monitors can help, though cost is a factor.
  • Better compartmentalisation and sealing of cargo holds supports CO2 effectiveness.
  • Enhanced crew training focused on likely container ship fires could improve outcomes.

Key Takeaways

  • Container ship crews face unique firefighting challenges for which basic regulatory requirements may be inadequate.
  • A combination of earlier detection, better equipment/training, and improved ship design is needed.
  • More research on successful container ship firefighting could help identify best practices to apply more broadly.


  • TT and UK PI Club ship fire series - webinar 2 - slidedeck 4 MB


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Staff Author

TT Club