The Marine Firefighting Institute

Newsletter # 15

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What's Inside Those Shipping Containers?

By Tom Guldner

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. 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 website.

In my seminars I have stressed locating several documents at any ship fire or emergency. These include the ship's Fire Plan, General Plan, Stability Booklet, and also 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).

OK, you have heavy smoke seeping from cargo hold #3 on a container ship. You consult the Cargo Manifest and find 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. However, 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 have to 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 going to try to lie or "miss-inform" authorities about the dangers of their cargo in order 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.

After the cowardly attacks of September 11 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 Firefighters. 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! (See Newsletter 8 "What happened to the air")

Additionally, in my shipboard Firefighting seminars, I also recommend the use of air sampling equipment. Most major Fire Departments have these gas meters and O2 meters. Don't leave them 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. They cannot be used if they are still in a compartment on your rescue truck. Also, call in your Haz Mat units early. They have the additional equipment and exposure suits that may be needed. 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.

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

Stay safe,

Tom Guldner

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Previous Newsletters:

Newsletter # 1 "Marine Firefighting Training, Who needs it!"

Newsletter # 2 "Shipboard Basics"

Newsletter # 3 "Straight Stream Vs Fog Stream"

Newsletter #4 "Immigrants in Shipping Containers"

Newsletter #5 "Hazards of Refrigeration in the Shipping Industry"

Newsletter #6 "Stability at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #7 "2 in 2 out at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #8 "What Happened To the Air"

Newsletter #9 "What Else Can Fireboats Do - WTC Response"

Newsletter #10 "Port Security - Are We Missing the Boat"

Newsletter # 11 "Let the Coast Guard Handle It"

Newsletter # 12 "Marina Fires ... We've Gotcha Covered!"

Newsletter # 13 "Shipboard Security -- The shocking Truth"

Newsletter # 14 "Just Because It Hasn't Happened Yet!"