Clay Maitland

On a quest for quality in shipping

Fire down below

Posted on | June 2, 2015 | No Comments

Heat, oxygen and something to burn are the classic ingredients of the “fire triangle” which comes near the beginning of every firefighting course. Take just one of the three away, and presto, combustion cannot take place. It is easier said than done, of course and a blazing semi-trailer on the vehicle deck of a ferry is not a good place to have to start the basic training.

Too many trucks catch fire, as any long-haul motorway journey reveals. They ignite for the same reasons as any other engine occasionally burns, when a fuel pipe or hydraulic line under pressure springs a leak and jet of liquid sprays over something very hot. But they also seem to burn because of something flammable in the load that has been heated up under the hot sun, or ignited by some careless loader’s cigarette. And while modern truck engines may have extinguishing systems fitted to them, it is a big ask when there is a 60mph wind blowing into the engine compartment. When the engine is stopped the conditions for a roaring fire can still exist, if the smouldering is fanned into fierce heat by a gale, as with the trucks which caught fire and twice nearly destroyed the Channel Tunnel and with the ferry fires that have cost lives and wrecked ships.

It may be possible to suffocate a fire in an enclosed vehicle deck, if the ventilation is closed up promptly and an expert fire team engaged. But what about a fire breaking out in one of these “semi-enclosed” shelter decks (what we used to call the ‘weather deck’ before somebody built accommodation on top of it? These are spaces naturally ventilated by the ship’s movement through the airstream, which blows through wide “windows” on the ship’s side. Several of the CTLs in recent years have featured such fires, which have been a nightmare to extinguish using only ship’s facilities.

It is made worse by the close proximity of one truck to another and the fact that the ship’s team is never entirely sure of what is actually on fire. What can be done? Do we need more regulations? Better prepared crews, more vigilance (with human patrols) and an absolute rule about clearing the cardeck of drivers (and anyone else) before the ship gets under way would all assist. That, and ensuring the ship’s fire fighting equipment is “state of the art” and ready at a moment’s notice, would also make a difference.

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