COLUMN | When the numbers become dangerous [Grey Power]

COLUMN | When the numbers become dangerous [Grey Power]

The Ro-Pax ferry Euroferry Olympia ablaze in international waters off the Greek island of Corfu, February 18, 2022. The incident, which left 11 people dead, was believed to have occurred after one of the vessel's embarked lorries caught fire. (Photo: Boulouard)

Probability, it has been said, can lull you into a false sense of security. We have been reminded of the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic just recently and it is worth recalling the reasons why this beautiful new ship departed on her maiden voyage with lifeboats unable to carry her full complement. Even disregarding the supposed “unsinkability” of the design, it was honestly believed that the risks of a fatal collision with an iceberg and the lack of any helpful assistance in a busy shipping route were perfectly acceptable. After all, why clutter the promenade decks with a lot of pointless boats?

“It wouldn’t happen to us” has been a reason for endless inadequacies throughout history and it is the same today. Statistics can be very comforting as a reason for proceeding “as usual”, or avoiding expenditure in safety equipment, which hopefully will never be used.

“There are still plenty of people who will assert that 99.999 per cent of containers don’t catch fire, so we maybe don’t need to do anything too drastic.”

In recent years there have been real scandals, like the number of seafarers killed in lifeboat drills using equipment that really needs to be re-thought, or those lost in enclosed spaces. However, they don’t happen that often and individually involve only a few lost souls, so the reasons for urgent reform are reserved for more dramatic events. It takes patient aggregation of accident statistics, like those provided by InterManager or the individual efforts of Dr Neil Baird on ferry safety to show us that the reliance on a sort of “percentage game” is both hazardous and immoral.

Yet it takes quite a lot to change attitudes and persuade regulators and industry of the need for change. Take the issue of container fires, which regularly destroy ships and goods as well as cost lives. It has been talked about for long enough, it has become an escalating concern with the sheer number of boxes on individual ships, but there are still plenty of people who will assert that 99.999 per cent of containers don’t catch fire, so we maybe don’t need to do anything too drastic.

The latest concern is that of electric vehicles and the very real risks of fires involving lithium-ion batteries, with more of these vehicles emerging every month to require carriage on Ro-Ro ferries. They have been around a fair time now and more of these older cars are rocking up at the ferry terminals, with possibly deteriorating batteries that might just possibly have been damaged in use. It was notable that after the loss of at least two big car carriers, the lines have been persuaded that damaged vehicles, which are often shipped abroad for parts, will not be permitted on their ships, and you couldn’t blame them for this precautionary policy.

But the general industry awareness of battery fires, it has been suggested, remains low and a useful meeting involving Stream Marine Technical and some industry experts has set out some of the issues that the batteries and EVs are throwing up. And in particular, as the numbers of EVs increase, there is a pressing need for specific training of crews on Ro-Ro and Ro-Pax ferries who may be confronted with car deck fires involving these difficult customers.

“We maybe ought to consider the risks of something really awful happening, more urgently, rather than waiting for the STCW convention to be suitably updated.”

At the present, mandatory training in tackling fire aboard ship is specified by the STCW requirements, which effectively deal with the subject as it was regarded in a “pre-EV” age and now needs updating to cope with the new hazard.

The meeting outlined just some of the things that can go wrong to make the batteries dangerous: an incorrect charging regime, incorrect installation, or malfunction, all of which can damage a battery and make it combustible. Then there is the risk of thermal runaway, which makes the fire virtually impossible to extinguish. Everyone has heard of the “fire triangle” that, by removing one of its sides, provides a pathway to a successful extinguishing of the conflagration. The EVs’ “fire tetrahedron” with a chemical chain reaction, the meeting was assured, is another matter entirely.

It was pointed out that there had been 387 battery fires since 2012, and that there are now 16-metre EVs motoring around, but the lack of training to deal with them rather dulls the significance of this ratio. It is just worth considering all the cars, some of which may be in a potentially hazardous state, boarding Ro-Ro and Ro-Pax ferries all around the world, the numbers immeasurably swelled at holiday times when the priority is sailing on time. Statistics aside, we maybe ought to consider the risks of something really awful happening, more urgently, rather than waiting for the STCW convention to be suitably updated. Of course there are responsible ferry operators that already have proper training and plans in place, but there are inevitably others that have concluded the statistics are on the side of inactivity. And we maybe ought to be thinking about car shuttle trains in tunnels or indeed multi-storey car parks.

Think about practice, not just relying on numbers.

Click here to read other news stories, features, opinion articles, and vessel reviews as part of this month’s Passenger Vessel Week.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.