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Better crew training needed for CO2 firefighting systems


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Survitec discuss the need for better crew training needed for CO2 firefighting systems.

Fire is the most common and most dangerous emergency at sea. Yet while the International Maritime Organization’s FSS Code provides engineering and design standards for all types of fire extinguishing systems, there are no mandatory regulations governing their installation, commissioning, operation and maintenance, only recommendations.

Although recommendations and guidelines are in place, and which should be followed to obtain certification from classification companies and flag state authorities, there have been several incidents in recent times where fixed fire extinguishing systems have failed.

For instance, in May last year, the accidental release of CO₂ aboard a 69,121dwt bulk carrier during routine checks of a CO2 firefighting system during repair work at shipyard, resulted in the death of ten seafarers and the hospitalisation of a further 19. The ensuing incident report found the system itself to be faultless, but it was incorrectly operated by the crew.

Similarly, an incident report published in 2015 by the Marine Accident Investigation Report (MAIB) in to the 2004 fire aboard a fishing vessel found the lack of training in the use of CO2 firefighting systems to be of significant concern.

Lack of knowledge of Co2

“The CO2 system did not operate effectively because it was poorly maintained, the crew were unaware of the correct operating and compartment isolation procedures, and there were no system-specific operating instructions posted….The crew were also unfamiliar with the safety procedures required for re-entry following use of CO2…. If the CO2 had been successfully discharged, then it is highly likely that fatalities would have resulted when re-entry was made to the engine room,” cited the report.

The 2004 fire aboard a 11162gt passenger ship also highlighted flaws in the crew’s knowledge, experience and training in the use of the CO2 system, with the MAIB concluding: “Despite instructions to release the CO2 having been carried out, unbeknown to the officers and crew at the time, no CO2 was released into the engine room to fight the fire.”

The vessel’s CO2 system was neither checked nor made secure after the fire, and during the investigations after the vessel’s arrival in Southampton, CO2 from a bank of cylinders was accidentally released into the engine room. Three crew members were lucky to escape without loss of life or serious injury.

Investigators concluded that officers misunderstood the system and how to operate it effectively. But what was also interesting about this incident, was that the investigators found that the system had been incorrectly installed. Only 51 cylinders would have activated instead of all 66.

Problems with the installation and commissioning of the fixed firefighting system were also found aboard a general cargo vessel. Inspectors discovered the system had “not discharged completely as one of the bottles had been installed incorrectly”.

“While it is difficult to put a number on all the fire related incidents where incorrect installation, operation or maintenance of a fixed firefighting system has resulted in system failure, injury or death, the above investigations do offer a difference perspective on the effectiveness of the current regulations and guidelines,” says Mats Hestmann, Survitec Group QHSE Manager.

“Fire safety systems are inherently designed to protect and save lives. However, if these systems are incorrectly used, installed or insufficiently inspected and maintained, the consequences can be severe. These can range from time delays and port penalties for non-compliance to serious injury or even fatality,” says Hestmann.

MSC.1/CIRC 1318, the Guidelines for the Maintenance and Inspections of Fixed Carbon Dioxide Fire-Extinguishing systems was released in June 2009 and have been adopted by most Flag states, but some are still following their own set of standards. Hestmann, believes that it would be beneficial for MSC.1/CIRC 1318 to become even more structured as is the case with MSC 1432, clearly defining what should be inspected. Once the majority of flag states have adopted an MSC circular, it then becomes a resolution making it mandatory.  

Hestman adds: “Great improvements to safety have come as a result of IACS Z-17 Service provider approvals. However, it’s not the failure of the firefighting system that is resulting in so many incidents, but rather the lack of system knowledge and poor operator training.

There should be more effective rules governing system training; because a crew member is familiar with one firefighting system doesn’t mean they are appropriately trained to use another manufacturer’s system or even a different system configuration. While the product itself might be standard, the layout of the system, the location of valves, cylinders, and vents and so on will differ from ship to ship. Certainly, crews need to be better trained in the use, operation and maintenance of these systems.”

Erik Christensen, Technical Director Fire Fighting says: “We have seen a number of incident reports where human error in the use of firefighting systems has been a common factor. Valves have been closed when they should have been open, ventilation flaps left open with main generators still running during the fire.

“Carbon Dioxide is a dangerous gas and any system that has been incorrectly installed, maintained or operated could not only fail to extinguish the fire but be very harmful to the crew.”

Colourless with a slightly astringent smell, CO2 is about 50% heavier than air and therefore highly effective in smothering a fire in a relatively short time. However, split seconds after its release, the covered space concentration level is life threatening. Therefore, to allow personnel time to escape, from the moment the CO2 alarm is activated, time delays delaying the release of CO2 are present on CO2 systems. Time delays can be programmed ranging from 20 seconds up to 2 minutes depending on the system.

Any re-entry into the space should only be once the space has been thoroughly vented and the air quality tested.

“As the market leader and a champion of maritime safety initiatives, it is important we foster greater fire safety and systems awareness,” says Christensen. “We have already issued advice offering our recommendations and we are nearing the final cut of an informative video to raise wider awareness of the need to ensure firefighting systems are correctly installed, regularly maintained, serviced and that crew operating the systems are trained and understand how to use the specific system.”

Survitec recommends that:

•             Fixed firefighting systems are commissioned by the Original Equipment Manufacturer or an OEM-approved and certified technician after installation

•             Systems are inspected regularly in line with the routine inspection regime detailed in the system manual. These are monthly checks and should be carried out by trained individuals.

•             Ships’ crews undergo basic systems configuration training and personal protective equipment training by the OEM.

•             Inspections and maintenance works are carried out by a trained systems technician in accordance with Maritime Safety Committee Circulars 1432 (Firefighting Systems) and 1318 (CO2 systems), or special flag/class requirements, in order to receive renewal of the Safety Equipment Certificate.

“We want to ensure that operators and crews have a much better understanding of how fixed firefighting systems operate and the importance of regular, properly carried-out maintenance. With greater knowledge, they will be able to overcome many of the operational challenges they face and prevent system failure when it is required in an emergency.

“Crews can be better equipped to fight fires more effectively, more safely, but any initiative needs to work in harmony with the rules, some of which could do well to be revised.”

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