There are several boat fire safety lessons to be learned from the cargo fire on the bulk vehicle carrier ‘Fremantle Highway’ in July 2023.  The fire caused the loss of several hundred vehicles, the death of an Indian crew member and forced the crew to abandon the vessel.  The vessel was then towed to Eemshaven port and the salvage operation was completed in September.  At time of writing, the fire investigation had yet to report the cause of the fire.

Unlike more ‘traditional’ fires on board ship, fighting fires involving EVs is a dangerous and challenging operation which requires additional training, resources and manpower.

MV ‘Fremantle Highway’ Lessons Learned

The Classification Society ClassNK of Japan has recently released updated guidance on dealing with cargo fires initiated by or involving EVs on commercial shipping.  It includes several common sense measures such as:

  • Enhanced thermal imaging of the cargo decks
  • Crew patrols using hand held thermal cameras
  • Enhanced firefighting tactics including:
    • Using large fire blankets to protect adjacent vehicles to reduce fire spread
    • Water mist adapters on hoses to enhance cooling effect
    • Improved boundary cooling with water curtains and ceiling / deck sprays.

Some of the more imaginative ideas contained in the guidance include:

  • Puncturing battery packs to inject cooling water
  • Using AI sound processing to detect the unique noise signature generated by an EV battery prior to thermal runaway
  • Fitting gas sensors into deck ventilation ducts to detect specific off-gasses from EV batteries
  • Provision of continuous air supplies to firefighting crews as a typical BA set only lasts 20-30 minutes.

With the percentage of EVs being transported globally set to increase every year, the industry needs to plan, prepare and equip vessels and crews to manage cargo fires initiated by or involving EVs at sea.

Boat Fire Safety Lessons For Boat Owners

For owners of small craft, the installation of a Lithium-Ion battery pack offers a tempting prospect of increased power density for a similar volume.  It also poses additional risks to the vessel and its operation that are worth considering.  Based on the boat fire safety lessons learned above, there are several questions all responsible boat owners with Lithium-Ion batteries should be asking in relation to their vessel:

  • Do I have a temperature monitoring system for the Lithium-Ion battery pack?
  • Do I have a detector capable of detecting the off gasses produced before thermal runaway starts?
  • Do I have a working smoke detector near the batteries?
  • How do I protect the hull from the heat generated during a thermal runaway event?
  • Is my firefighting equipment able to provide sustained water mist cooling of the battery?
  • If the Lithium-Ion battery goes off line, what is my back up power source for nav lights, bilge pumps, AIS and radio?
  • If I have to abandon ship, am I equipped to do so quickly and effectively?
  • Is my insurance adequate?

As Benjamin Franklin said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.  Or as every British soldier knows it, the Seven Ps:

“Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”.

Read more on the ClassNK guidance here:

https://www.classnk.or.jp/hp/en/activities/statutory/ev_carriage_safety/index.html