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International Forwarding Association Blog » Sea freight in Europe » Fire Onboard Ships: Causes and Consequences

Fire Onboard Ships: Causes and Consequences

Fires on board cargo and passenger’s vessels lead to damages and loss of lives each year. While safety is paid attention to during construction and design, the incidence of fires onboard ships has not improved.


Why Incidents Occur

The incidence of fires onboard container ships continues to grow, and the larger a vessel is, the higher the risk of fire. Reports show that over the last 5 years, more than 70 fire incidents occurred onboard container vessels.

Fires in the cargo area of Ro-Ro/car and container ships have been a major topic of debate. Lines shipping battery-powered electric vehicles also face growing risks. In addition, incidents occur due to the misdeclaration of cargo and inadequate fire-fighting equipment. Damaged ventilation ducting, inoperable fire dampers, and defective fire doors have been reported as sources of accidents onboard ships. Also, inoperable and disconnected fire detectors as well as detectors wrapped up in plastic bags are a major risk for onboard fires.


What can make the situation worse is the fact that crews may not be familiar with the contents of the containers being shipped. The truth is that only a portion of the containers shipped is subject to inspection. Illegally transported cargo is a major cause of marine accidents, including mis-declared and undeclared cargo such as ammunition, weapons, and chemicals.

At the same time, the vast majority of incidents occur in engine rooms and are mostly due to poor maintenance. This can cause oil-soaked insulation, fuel oil leaks, and malfunctioning fire pumps. Other causes of fire include galley mishaps, lighting strikes, smoking, faulty electric wiring, and overheating engines.



Fire incidents can cause shipment delays, serious environmental impacts, material damages, supply chain disruptions, and life-threatening situations. Salvage efforts are also a costly endeavor, with only a handful of ports being able to accommodate ultra-large container ships.

Also, when a fire occurs onboard, there is a risk of spreading in the cargo area. This can put the ship and crew in danger, especially in cases where ships are transporting hazardous goods like combustible or flammable materials. Such cargo includes petroleum-based fluids, fertilizers, clothing, alcohol, and wood and paper products.


Measures to Prevent Cargo Fires

The three main ways to minimize the risk of fire include training staff, regularly inspecting engine room and fire-fighting equipment, and identifying cargo that is potentially flammable. All crews must be properly trained on what to do in case of a fire incident. Old and faulty fire extinguishers must be duly replaced and all devices must be routinely inspected. In addition, operators must identify any cargo which can be a potential fire hazard. Flammable materials should be safely stored to reduce the risk of explosion and damage.

Lastly, it is the responsibility of the carrier to implement safety procedures to prevent incidents that can cause injury and damage to cargo and the ship itself. Owners are responsible to provide training and adequate fire detection and prevention systems to minimize risk.