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Water streams from boats and on board pour water on the fire burning in containers on the Sea Elegance.

What’s inside those shipping containers?

The 17,800-gross ton container ship Sea Elegance had been lying at anchor off Durban awaiting a berth for less than 24 hours when an explosion rocked the vessel at 0730 hours on October 11, 2003. A fire rapidly spread around the stern of the Singapore-flag vessel and into the accommodation superstructure. As the fire was brought under control later in the day, it was discovered that one of the 24-man crew had been killed in the incident.

When South African Maritime Administration officials examined the ship’s manifest, there were no dangerous goods listed. However, fire scene investigators believe that the blaze was probably caused by the self-ignition of a container load of calcium hypochlorite stowed under deck in the aft hold.

“The fire started in a container in the lower part of the hold,” said South African Maritime Administration official Bill Dernier. We’re convinced it was caused by an explosion of hazardous cargo that was not properly declared, and that that cargo was calcium hypochlorite. We’re told that calcium hypochlorite is liable to decompose at elevated temperatures and that this may lead to fire or an explosion. The suspected container was stored right next to the engine room bulkhead, which is a hotspot and not where a container of this material should have been stowed. “The calcium hypochlorie was also stowed next to a herbicide, Atrazine,” continued Dernier. “When the calcium hypochlorite container exploded, it probably opened up the Atrazine container, and this herbicide burns like nobody’s business. There were also rolls of paper, tires and plastic in No 6 hold.”

If allegations that this massive fire on the container ship Sea Elegance on October 11 was caused by an undeclared hazardous cargo are correct, the blaze will be the third major dangerous goods incident in South African waters in the space of a year.

The above article appeared on the Haz.com website.

Gas and chemical detectors may be found aboard but you want to use your own, if available.

In my marine firefighting training programs, I have stressed immediately locating several documents at any ship fire or emergency. These include the ship’s Fire Plan, General Plan, Stability Booklet, and the Hazardous Cargo Manifest. This manifest, (sometimes known at Dangerous Goods Manifest) should list the location of any cargo considered as hazardous by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It should also list that container’s exact location, the product involved, its hazards, its quantities, and any information that would be needed by first responders. This would include firefighting precautions such as “use no water” or other operational precautions. You also want to consult an informed member of the crew. The vessels First Mate would be my choice. He is familiar with the cargo. In fact, he was the one who supervises the loading and unloading of the vessel. He would have a copy of the manifest and any other loading documents. He is also knowledgeable in regards to any firefighting and fixed firefighting appliances.

Land Based Firefighters should also consult the Emergency Response Guidebook to verify that the information listed on the manifest is correct and current.

OK, you have heavy smoke seeping from cargo hold #3 on a container ship. You consult the Cargo Manifest and find that it states that there is no stowage of Hazardous cargos listed in cargo hold #3. From this you decide to control and then attack the fire as you normally would. (Note: Land Based Firefighters should try to have the container off-loaded and then attack the fire if the vessel is at dock.)

However, in this case, Firefighters in onboard staging areas are complaining of headaches and dizziness. What went wrong?

Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean that it will not happen. It’s against the law to rob banks, however we read about bank robberies each week. Shippers must pay more if their cargo is classified as dangerous or hazardous cargo. Given what I’ve seen of human nature in my time on this earth, I would say that there is a good chance that someone is eventually going to try to lie or “miss-inform” authorities about the dangers of their cargo to save some money. This is more easily done aboard container ships as the containers are usually packed elsewhere and sealed for transport. The vessel’s owner or charterer relies on forms that are filled out by the cargo’s owner who may not be all that accurate or honorable.

After the cowardly attacks of September 11, 2001, the shipping industry has been forced to put closer tabs on their crews and the cargo they carry. This has helped to prevent SOME of the misinformation about containerized cargo but it has not eliminated it.

So, what can Firefighters (both mariner Firefighters and land-based Firefighters) do to protect themselves if they can’t be 100% certain about the contents of a cargo hold and/or an intermodal container? The answer is in the operational regulations already applicable to land-based Firefighters. In the USA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace safety. Their requirements state that if you will be operating in smoke; WEAR YOU MASK! The Firefighters Self-contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) is the first line of defense against toxic gases which may be found in the smoke. Even if you are only presented with a slight haze at one of these fires, Incident Commanders should insure that anyone entering the smoke is protected with SCBA. This can also be important after initial fire knockdown and overhaul. It is at these times that the Firefighter may let down his or her guard. If you still are unsure of the exact contents, then keep you mask on throughout the operation! Mask usage aboard ships may be required even when there is no smoke! (This will be covered in a future article entitled, “What happened to the air”).

Additionally, in my shipboard Firefighting training programs, I also recommend the use of air sampling equipment. Most major Fire Departments have these gas meters and O2 meters. If not carried on every apparatus (and they should), they would be carried by Haz-Mat and Rescue crews.

Don’t leave this valuable tool on your apparatus as you board a vessel on fire or when boarding a vessel that will take you to a vessel on fire. Even though most of these detectors have a limited number of substances they can detect in any air sample, they are a tool that should be used. However, they cannot be used if they are still in a compartment on your rescue truck while you are standing on the deck of the ship! Also, call in your Haz Mat units early. They have the additional equipment and exposure suits that may be needed. I would suggest that they be included in any alarm response dealing with a reported ship fire. If you don’t have your own Haz Mat unit then contact the Coast Guard. They may be able to supply Haz Mat trained and equipped personnel. (USCG photo right) If the fire involves a known hazardous material then only Haz-Mat trained personnel should be directly involved.

Note: The ship may have its own air sampling equipment but I always advise that you use your own equipment. Your Firefighters know how to use it and they know it works. (It was checked at morning roll call. Right?)

Haz Mat trained Coast Guard personnel take air samples during a Haz Mat drill.

Haz Mat trained Coast Guard personnel take air samples during a Haz Mat drill.

In all my marine firefighting training programs, I recommend that land-based firefighters always use their own tools and equipment. Many older ships have defective equipment and in many cases hoses have burst and firefighting pumps have failed at crucial moments during a firefighting operation. It’s not always possible but, whenever it is, use your own tools!

Whenever smoke is encountered emanating from a ship’s cargo hold or Haz-Mat is indicated in the previously mentioned Hazardous Cargo Manifest, then air sampling should start immediately before nearing the fire area.

For the mariner at sea there are few options for a container fire below decks. If present, the SOP on most ships is to seal the cargo hold and activate the CO2 system. One benefit that Land-Based Firefighters have when the ship is at dock is the option of just unloading the containers onto the dock until the ones on fire are reached. This is the recommended procedure for any container in the cargo hold and provides a bit of safety for your operating personnel. Your firefighters can now safely operate on that container and, if needed, unload its contents to effect final extinguishment. (Note: There will be a future article dealing solely with containers.)

If a Haz-Mat cargo is suspected the container should be brought to a secluded area of the dock and operated on by your Haz-Mat trained personnel. If possible, have tarps placed on the ground and then lower the container onto the tarp. This may allow the capture of any hazardous run-off from the firefighting operations. As always, if Haz-Mat is involved, then only Haz-Mat trained personnel should be allowed to operate on that container.

If your Department does not have a sufficient Haz-Mat response, you may be able to contact the Coast Guard for assistance. While the US Coast Guard will not actively engage in the shipboard firefighting they do have regional “Strike Force Teams” who can respond in force with all the necessary equipment.

We can’t eliminate all the risks involved in firefighting but when we do have the capabilities and equipment we should make full use of them.

Whenever land-based firefighters board a vessel and enter the marine environment they are entering a new world. Do not allow your Firefighters to operate in this environment without the proper training and the specialized equipment to keep them safe.

For more information, go to www.marinefirefighting.com

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Tom Guldner is a retired Lieutenant of the New York City Fire Department’s Marine Division and is a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Merchant Vessels. His company Marine Firefighting Inc. is involved in consulting and training mariners and land based firefighters in all aspects of marine fire fighting.