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There’s a major container ship fire every 60 days. Why so many?

PortandTerminal.com, May 27, 2019

The toxic chemical fire and explosion on a container ship in Thailand this weekend was the latest event in a steady tick-tock, tick-tock cycle of container ship fires. There is one every 60 days or so now.

If you feel like there have been a lot of container ship fires so far this year then you’re right. There have been. TT Club has calculated that a major container ship happens every 60 days or so now.

What’s causing the fires?

This weekend’s a massive explosion and container fire at Thailand’s largest port was blamed on a load of dangerous chemical cargo stowed onboard.

TT Club has revealed that in 66% of incidents, cargo damage is due to poor practice in the packing process, including cargo identification, declaration, documentation and data transfer.

Peter Tirschwell, Vice President, Maritime & Trade, IHS Markit summed it up best in a Tweet when he stated that “dangerous goods, often misdeclared” are at the root of the problem.

Based on 2016 figures, the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association estimates that 5.4 million containers are packed with dangerous goods (DG) every year. If just one in a thousand of those 5.4 million containers is a serious fire risk, that means that there are 5,400 potential incidents waiting to happen each year.

In this weekend’s incident in Thailand, initial checks showed the blaze broke out in a load of cargo containing the dangerous chemical calcium hypochlorite.

“If we get more and more containers on-board, the chance that we will have a fire on-board [due to] misdeclared cargo is much bigger,” Uwe-Peter Schieder, vice-chairman of IUMI’s Loss Prevention Committee said in an interview.

The cost of the fires

In March 2019, a container fire broke out on the Grimaldi Group’s Grande America, which later sank as a result. According to Grimaldi, the fire on its vessel started in a container stowed on the deck

These incidents cost the Marine Aviation & Transport (MAT) insurance sector US$500 million in claims each year. They also cost lives, millions of dollars in cargo losses and ship damage. They also cause cargo delays that undermine maritime transport’s reliability. Remaining cargo on the Hapag Lloyd vessel that caught fire last January finally made it to Halifax, Canada last week, four months late.

These recent fires have reopened the conversation about the difficulties of preventing and extinguishing fires on the open sea. In an era when ships are larger than they have ever been before, when crew are stretched, and the amount of dangerous goods being transported is growing can we really be surprised by TT Club’s “fire every 60 days” finding?

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