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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK


Ship fires create unique dangers

A tug boat battles to put out the fire on the Ever Decent

When faced with a fire on board, a crew can rarely dial 999 and expect the fire brigade to come to their help, a shipping expert said today.

Instead the quality of their training and the knowledge of their own ship are going to be vital to their survival.

Not knowing how extensive a fire is, not knowing how much water is safe to deal with a fire, and restricted escape areas on board are some of the particular dangers they face.

And with container ships there are also worries about what exactly is in the containers on board.

Even if there is no hazardous material logged as being inside the containers, there is the danger that incorrect declarations may have been made.

A spokesman for Kent Fire Brigade, whose officers were called to deal with the blaze on the Ever Decent cargo ship in the early hours, said the mixture of content among the various containers was a major concern, because when alight it could be unpredictable.

When firefighters arrived at the Ever Decent, there were about 15 containers alight on the ship's deck, but because they were uncertain if the fire was burning below, they did not go on board.

They fought it instead from a tug, and had considered getting the crew off as well.

Crew training

Shipping expert Captain Roger Clipsham, of the International Federation of Shipmasters' Associations, said officers and crew need to be highly trained to deal with fires.

"When a calamity like this occurs, it's very often out of sight, out of reach of aircraft and helicopters, and so the crew and officers will survive solely on their training and equipment," he said.

It was their training in firefighting and their knowledge of their ship which would make the difference, he said.

The crew of the Ever Decent were fortunate to be in reach of the emergency services. He said the Kent Fire Brigade were highly trained to deal with fires on ships.

But firefighters would not know the peculiarities of the ship, and this is where the the crew's expertise would come in especially useful.

He echoed the worries about what can be on board cargo ships.

"The trouble with many container ships is that you can never be absolutely sure that what the shipper has stated is in the container is actually in them, and nothing else.

"There may be stowaways, explosives, dangerous chemicals, things that could cause very high loss of life. This is perhaps the biggest worry with container ships."

The other problem was that the weight of the container might not be accurate, affecting the calculations of how much water would be safe to pump on board to put the fire out without capsizing the boat.

Saying that dealing with the ship fire could take days to deal with, the spokesman for Kent Fire Brigade said: "With ship firefighting it's notoriously difficult to say this is absolutely out and finished."

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