Making ferries safer by reducing the risk of fires on board

The outbreak of fires on board ro-ro decks of ferries such as the likes of the Grande America should come as no surprise. It’s unfortunate but true. The statistics bear this out with at least one very serious accident reported on board the ro-ro decks of passenger ships every other year since 2002.

And, while these ship types are popular for their unique ability to rapidly integrate with other transport systems, a number of factors such as the complexity of design, cargo on board and large passenger numbers make safety more difficult to achieve and accidents – when they arise – potentially more catastrophic.

An important step was taken recently to improve the situation at the last session of the International Maritime Organization’s Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment. A set of interim guidelines for the reduction of fires on the ro-ro decks of passenger ships was agreed and is expected to be approved by the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee in June of this year.

Driving this development is a set of studies commissioned by EMSA and conducted by RISE, Bureau Veritas and Stena Line. These Firesafe studies, as they are known, have given meaningful input to IMO and it is hoped they will lead to further discussions and agreement on relevant amendments to the International Safety of Life at Sea Convention, SOLAS.

The two studies investigated the various stages involved in fire-related accidents, namely ignition, extinguishment, detection, decision, containment, and evacuation, and were conducted according to the Formal Safety Assessment (FSA) methodology.

Collecting useful conclusions
The statistics collected during the two Firesafe studies led to some very useful intermediate conclusions. It could be seen, for example, that 90 per cent of these fires originate in the cargo being transferred and not the ship itself. This would make prevention of such fires extremely difficult, given the nature of the normal operation of ro-ro passenger ships.

Where the studies can also have a positive impact is in the large number of quantified Risk Control Options (RCOs) identified. These are regulatory proposals and best practices for which the expected risk reduction and relevant implementation costs have been identified and quantified.

The findings were shared with the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment and led to extensive discussions, drawing input from accident investigation reports and best practices.

Taking a two-step approach for more rapid change
To encourage rapid development, it was decided that a two-step approach would be advantageous. The first step would involve the adoption of interim guidelines and the second, the adoption of amendments to SOLAS as well as any other relevant instruments (FSS Code, STCW).

In the first step, the adopted interim guidelines, several recommended safety measures were put forward, including the introduction of:

  • a minimum distance between life-saving appliances and the openings on ro-ro decks
  • a fixed fire detection system and water monitors for weather ro-ro decks
  • improved decision-making Risk Control Options
  • stricter requirements for cabling and connections
  • CCTV to cover all ro-ro spaces

Importantly, these guidelines would also prohibit open ro-ro decks in new builds. Open ro-ro decks (i.e. those with significant side openings) have been identified several times in accident investigation reports as being risky due to their negative influence on detection, extinguishment, containment and evacuation.

Throughout this whole process, ferry operators have been very much involved, not least in their contribution to the agreement reached at the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Systems and Equipment. They have also been actively implementing safety measures and best practices over the last few years, showing a clear break from a ‘compliance mentality’ towards one of risk reduction on board their vessels.

While much work remains to be done, the second step involving amendments to SOLAS is in the pipeline with a deadline of 2021 and a possible entry into force in 2024. Looking forward to the increased presence of alternatively powered vehicles on board ro-ro decks will see another set of emerging risks which will also require combined efforts to tackle safely and effectively. v

The European Maritime Safety Agency is one of the European Union’s decentralised agencies. Based in Lisbon, the Agency’s mission is to ensure a high level of maritime safety, maritime security, prevention of and response to pollution from ships, as well as response to marine pollution from oil and gas installations.