Preventing Onboard Fires

By June 26, 2015 Article No Comments

^ No Smoking Sign on a Ship’s Main Deck – (Source:

Prevention, Always Better than Cure

Fire prevention is an evolutionary process. There will always be vessels that experience fire for the first time. Nothing guarantees total prevention. Ship safety begins on the drawing board and is completed only on the vessel’s decommissioning!

Safe situations in calm seas can turn lethal in rough seas. Plus, many port cities deny assistance to ships-on-fire for these ports lack the resources to fight fires. Engine room fires cause dangerous loss of navigation control. And, excessive use of water for fire extinguishing can destabilize the ship.

Preventing onboard fires is a million times better than fighting it in the middle of nowhere. Prevention, control, and extinguishment of fire are broadly similar for all kinds of vessels. Although national-international regulations have lowered ship fire incidents, tragedies continue. Regulations are effective only when the crew executes them in letter and spirit.

Fire Types & Prevention Regulations

Onboard fires can be a result of:

  • accidents
  • uncontrollable circumstances
  • negligence
kemplon - Ship-to-Ship Fuel

Ship-to-Ship Fuel Transfer Can Cause Fires (Source:

We shall deal with ‘negligence fires’. U.S.-flagged ships adhere to demanding safety standards that provide uniform minimum requirements for vessel construction. Good design is useful only when combined with good workmanship. Design regulations target:

  • Structural Fire Protection: hull, decks, superstructure, and bulkheads
  • Restricted Use of Combustible Material
  • Exhaust System Insulation
  • Venting of Fuel Tanks, Cargo Spaces, and Pump Rooms
  • Escape Pathways
  • Minimum Stairway Sizes
  • Fire Detection-Alarm Systems
  • Fire Main Mechanisms
  • Fixed Fire Extinguishing Apparatus
  • Portable and Semi-Portable Extinguishers
  • Approved Equipment, Machinery, and Installation

Causes & Preventive Actions

Prevention strategies rely on not allowing the fire tetrahedron to complete. To start and continue, fire requires four essentials called fire tetrahedron:

  • fuel
  • heat
  • oxygen
  • combustion chain reaction
Fire Tetrahedron (Source:

Fire Tetrahedron

  1. I. Careless Smoking and indiscriminate disposal of butts and matches hikes fire risks. Prevention measures:
  • multiple ashtrays in smoking areas
  • wetting ashtray content before disposal douses fire-causing embers and flames
  • prohibiting smoking in fire-sensitive areas viz. engine and boiler rooms, weather deck, storage rooms, cargo holds, and work-spaces
  1. Spontaneous Ignition is fire that breaks out without aid from flames or embers. Rising heat causes combustible material to ignite. Wood, chlorine, sodium, potassium, coal, metal shavings, certain oils and paints, and powders of titanium, zirconium oxidize, magnesium, and calcium are prone to such ignition.
Tanker Loading-Unloading Can Cause Fires (Source:

Tanker Loading-Unloading Can Cause Fires

III. Defective Electric Equipment and Circuits viz. sparks from old or ill-maintained electric motors, wires with broken insulation, fuses with larger-than-necessary capacity, batteries emitting hydrogen when being charged, overloaded electric circuits, exposed light bulbs, and heat-trapping vapor-tight fixtures are heat sources.

Preventive measures:

  • using standard ship-grade material and equipment that withstands corrosive sea air, ship vibrations, and short-circuiting effects of steel hulls
  • rigorous maintenance practices
  • recharging batteries in well-ventilated areas
  1. Fuel Oil Transfer and Service Operations involve transfer and storage of millions of liters of fuel-oil. Number 6 and Bunker C fuel have flash point temperature of 65.60C and ignition temperatures of 368.3-407.20C.

Fuel vapors, leaks, and over-filled tanks can ignite during fuel transfers. Faulty oil burners cause incomplete fuel combustion leaving behind inflammable fuel. Bilge fires result from oil leakages. These spread rapidly around piping and machinery and are tougher to stamp out than boiler room fires.

Ensure proper positioning of strainers, and tight flange joints before commencing well-monitored fuel transfers. Combustible Liquids have flash points above 26.70C. Flammable Liquids emit flammable vapors at or below 26.70C. Flash Point is temperature at which a compound emits sufficient vapor to ignite in air.

Ship Collision Can Cause Fires (Source:,-germany-8750)

Ship Collision Can Cause Fires

  1. Welding-Burning Operations are inherently inflammable: oxyacetylene flames can reach 3315.50C and throw around red-hot sparks and molten slag. Prevention techniques:
  • institutionalizing fire watch, fire prevention procedures, and common sense in every welding-burning operation
  • removing inflammable vapors and material from work areas
  • no operations in fire-prone zones
  • leak-free welding gas pipes and equipment
  • welding operations by trained personnel only
  1. Tanker Loading-Unloading has caused innumerable casualties and unaccountable losses. Faulty fenders, open flames-sparks, cargo expansion, improper coordination, static electricity, pump-room hazards, and inappropriate use of cargo hose cause such fires. Fenders are ship bumpers.

VII. Unauthorized Construction causes stowed material to fall during rough weather. Falling material damages electric insulation and fuel lines leading to fires.

VIII. Inappropriate Cargo Stowage affects the vessel’s stability triggering the fall of stowed material. Install stringent supervision provisions while loading, particularly for loading hazardous cargo and containers for crews have no control over contents in containers.

  1. Galley/Kitchen Operations involve use of fire-promoting electricity, LPG, or diesel for cooking. Deep-fryers and oil-grease accumulations provide the starting fuel. Proper cleaning eliminates them.
  2. Shore-side Workers Aboard for Repair, Maintenance, and Cargo Movement are a hazard for they are unaware or unconcerned of the consequences of fires at high seas that crews face. Monitoring and correcting (if necessary) their behavior lowers this risk.
  3. Shipyard Operations allow yard personnel to work on ships with few crew members around and when fire-safety systems are temporarily shut down. Again, supervision is the only alternative.

XII. Collisions between ships, particularly tankers, often cause fires as the collision brings combustible material in contact with heated areas and oxygen.

Ship Fire Prevention Program

Fire Prevention Programs are a codified list of do’s and don’ts for fire prevention. These are tailored for each ship and must evolve with time. Although, the ship’s Safety Committee develops and executes these, fire prevention is everyone’s responsibility.

Most importantly, they must create a positive, proactive attitude towards fire prevention among everyone through formal and informal interactions. Such programs must include:

  • Formal and Informal Training
  • Periodic Inspections
  • Preventive Maintenance-Repair
  • Recognizing Efforts


Stringent programs coupled with continuous vigilance and evolution is the only way to minimize outbreak of fires.

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