The maritime professionals’ union Nautilus International is urging the government to reverse cuts to at-sea fire-fighting services after new research revealed that ship fires are the biggest threat to safety in European waters.
A study published by the Finnish Transport Safety Agency shows that almost 800 ship fires occurred in European waters between 2004 and 2014 – 10 per cent of which were classified as ‘serious’.
The largest percentage of ship fires and explosions occurred on cargo ships, with around one quarter of incidents taking place on cruiseships and passenger ferries. Six per cent of fires on passenger carrying vessels result in fatalities or serious injury every year, which emphasises the importance and necessity for rapid action, and the ‘decisive role’ of crew drills.
Analysis of 570 of these incidents showed that crew members needed external support in around one-third of fires and the report highlights the importance of specialist Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) team to assist seafarers in dealing with emergencies including fires, chemical hazards and rescues.
However, the UK government withdrew funding for the national Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) in 2011 – claiming that demand for the service was too low to justify the cost.
The UK MIRG service had been launched in 2006 following a campaign by Nautilus and the Association of Chief Fire Officers following long-running concerns over the decline in the number of fire brigades capable of delivering emergency support at sea. At one stage before MIRG was launched, only nine of the 39 fire and rescue services around the whole of the UK had the capacity to provide services to shipping.
Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson said: ‘The Union had strongly campaigned against the cuts in the UK’s at-sea fire-fighting capacity. The government needs to pay serious attention to this new study and realise just how necessary it is to have a specially trained team to provide immediate external help to fire-fighting vessel crews.
‘The reasons why MIRG was created in 2006 remain valid today,’ he pointed out. ‘Ships have been getting bigger, carrying more passengers than ever before, as well as hazardous and often complex cargoes. At a time when crewing levels have been reduced significantly, it is essential that seafarers are given the back-up and support of properly trained specialist teams to handle the huge challenges that can arise in emergency situations.’
Captain Russ Garbutt, former master of the North Sea ferry, Pride of York, said: ‘Not only did the availability of these specialist fire-fighting crews reassure you as a seafarer, they also provided us with our own training to help us combat the fires. Having said that, they were the professionals and our abilities couldn’t match theirs.’
The most serious incident in recent years was the December 2014 blaze onboard the passenger ferry Norman Atlantic, in which 11 people died, and several more injured. Researchers said the value of using specialist MIRG teams were clear, supporting crews in decision making and assessing safety.
Mark Dickinson added: ‘In this day and age, incidents on this scale just shouldn’t be happening. This report highlights just how important the roles of Maritime Incident Response Groups are. Both the industry and passengers need to know that their safety is taken seriously by authorities, and boosting at-sea firefighting resources is the first step to that.’
On Sunday evening (7th August) a 17,0000-tonne drilling rig ran aground on the Western Isles. Fortunately no personnel were on board the rig and there was no risk to life, but an emergency towing vessel had to be dispatched demonstrating the dangers of operating offshore.
For more information, go to www.nautilusint.org