Ship fires pose a threat to maritime safety in Europe with the highest risk on roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) passenger ships because a single ship may carry more than 1000 people and tens of millions use this transport.

This is the main conclusion drawn from a risk assessment on ship fires produced by the Finnish Border Guard and Finnish Transport Safety Agency and produced for use in the Baltic Sea Maritime Incident Response Group (Baltic Sea MIRG) project.

The report concluded that it is very difficult to prevent ship fires and minimising their consequences also poses great challenges. About 6 per cent of fires on ro-ro passenger ships have resulted in loss of life or serious injury and every year.
"This is a thorough and comprehensive insight into the impact of fires on shipping in Europe and highlights the need for the work being done by the Finnish Border Guard with the Baltic MIRG project," said International Maritime Rescue Federation IMRF, CEO, Bruce Reid.
"Even though there has only been a slight rise in ship fires between 2004-2014, there is no room for complacency. We have a great interest in seeing how SAR response to ship fires can be improved particularly in the context of Maritime Mass Rescue Operations."

Providing the context for the findings, the reports says that sea transport plays a central role in Europe’s goods and passenger traffic. Almost 90 per cent of Europe’s foreign trade is seaborne, and every year about 400 million passengers either embark or disembark at European ports.

In 2013, the volume of seaborne trade at European ports totalled 3,716 million tons. Liquid bulk cargo accounted for the largest proportion of this, at 38 per cent. The next most significant product groups were solid bulk cargo, containers, and multimodal ro-ro transports. Exports accounted for 1,472 million tons of all seaborne trade, and imports for 2,244 million tons. When these figures are compared to those for global seaborne trade, European ports accounted for 17 per cent of exports and 21 per cent of imports.

The report says that many passengers and crew members have died in ship fires in European sea areas. The most serious of these have been on ro-ro passenger ships. The worst accident in recent history occurred in 1990, when 159 people were killed in a ship fire aboard the Scandinavian Star.

'This tragedy' the report’s authors conclude, ‘played a significant role in the IMO’s decision to launch preparations for the ISM Code. When it came into force, safety management systems became compulsory for many operators and vessels. In seafaring, it is quite typical for significant safety-enhancing measures to be launched in the wake of catastrophes rather than on the basis of risk assessments.’

According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence statistics, 74 ship fires occurred in European sea areas in 2014, 10 of which were serious. A total of 799 ship fires occurred during the period 2004–2014, 10 per cent of which were serious. The worst incident occurred in December 2014, when 11 people were killed and several injured in a fire aboard the ro-ro passenger ship Norman Atlantic. The fire originated on the ship’s car deck. Other ship fires resulting in multiple fatalities or injuries also occurred during this period.

In 2010, 28 people were injured in a fire aboard the ro-ro passenger ship Lisco Gloria. The fire originated on the ship’s car deck. In 2008, 10 people were killed and several injured after an explosion aboard the general cargo ship Enisey. The explosion was caused by welding sparks while the ship was docked. In 2008, 8 people were killed and several injured after an explosion aboard the gas carrier Friendshipgas.

In an examination of ship fires over the period 2004–2014, the report says a slight rise can be detected. Ship fires have increased among, for example, general cargo ships, ro-ro passenger ships and cruise ships. Nordic insurance companies10 and the EMSA11 have also noted this increase in the number of ship fires aboard ro-ro passenger ships.
'It is also worth noting that there has been a significant reduction in the number of ship passengers in Europe in recent years, and this must also have been reflected in the number of ro-ro passenger ships. On the basis of this data, it can be assumed that a greater number of fires per vessel are occurring aboard ro-ro passenger ships. On the other hand, favourable developments can be seen in, for example, the number of fires aboard oil tankers, chemical tankers and fishing vessels, which have all decreased in recent years.'

Compliance with fire safety regulations does not guarantee that a vessel is safe, the report says, but it is a good starting point for safe operations. According to researchers from the Finnish Safety Investigation Authority, attitude plays a key role in fire prevention. This can often be seen in the thorough performance of basic procedures, such as keeping areas clean and tidy and maintaining equipment in proper working order.

'However, preventing fires can be difficult, as there are such a wide range of potential causes, from electrical faults to a variety of human activities. It is therefore impossible to prepare for all eventualities. This is why specific causes of fire are not always significant with regard to the overall safety of a vessel. Instead, it is often easier to influence the prompt detection of fires and their effective extinguishment, and these factors therefore play a key role in minimising fire damage aboard vessels.'

Several international regulations on vessel fire safety have been passed. The key ones are SOLAS Chapter II, the FSS Code, and Section A of the STCW Code. These international regulations seek to both prevent ship fires (preventative measures) and minimise their consequences (proactive measures).