Home / Security / The Battle Against Shipboard Fires: Overcoming Challenges Amidst Safety Measures and Technological Advancements

The Battle Against Shipboard Fires: Overcoming Challenges Amidst Safety Measures and Technological Advancements

The maritime industry plays a vital role in global trade and transportation, with countless ships traversing the world’s oceans every day. However, lurking beneath the surface of this bustling industry are the persistent threats posed by shipboard fires. Despite the implementation of rigorous safety measures and advancements in fire prevention, detection, and firefighting technologies, these incidents continue to plague ships. In this article, we will delve into the challenges faced by the maritime sector in its battle against shipboard fires and explore the ongoing efforts to overcome them.


Since the conclusion of World War II, naval forces across the globe have experienced thousands of major accidents, resulting in significant consequences. These incidents have included dozens of ship sinkings, hundreds of explosions and fires, costly repairs, premature retirements of vessels, and, tragically, the loss of many lives. Naval accidents are distinct in nature due to the unique environment in which they occur. The oceans can be relentless and unforgiving, posing challenges for even the most experienced sailors. In the last 6 years, many Dozens of people have been killed in Naval accidents. The highest number of casualties was when 18 sailors died when a blast took place at the torpedo compartment of INS Sindhurakshak.


Shipboard fires have been a major threat to maritime safety for centuries. In the days of wooden sailing ships, fires were often caused by cooking accidents, sparks from tools, or enemy action. With the advent of steamships, the risk of fire increased due to the presence of flammable fuels and machinery.


The presence of explosives and other flammable materials onboard naval vessels, combined with the inherent dangers of ships themselves—filled with moving machinery and electrical equipment—increases the potential for accidents, whether they stem from natural forces or human error.


In the maritime sector, fires are known by being a critical risk for the safety on board specially on passenger ships as the number of passengers on board is directly proportional to the potential life loss.


Fire Accidents

Fires are by far the most prevalent cause of ship damage, according to official Navy statistics, from 1973 to 1983 there were an average of 148 fires per year on U.S. ships or at shore bases. There have been 267 documented major fires aboard ships, although many more are suspected as having taken place. In addition, hundreds of minor fires have occurred at sea, during ship construction and overhauls.


A lieutenant commander lost his life while attempting to snuff out an accidental fire that broke out on India’s only aircraft carrier INS VIKRAMADITYA near the INS Kadamba Naval Base in Karwar in Apr 2019. Though the crew was able to bring the fire under control immediately, lieutenant commander DS Chauhan lost consciousness inhaling the fumes during the firefight. He was rushed to the INHS Patanjali hospital near the base, but breathed his last while undergoing treatment.


In recent years, there have been a number of major shipboard fires, including the 2019 fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard, a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship. The fire, which started in a lower deck storage area, quickly spread throughout the ship and caused extensive damage. It took firefighters several days to extinguish the blaze, and the ship was eventually decommissioned.


Analysis of Fire Accidents

The analysis of maritime accidents is crucial for evaluating the risk and to identify the main causes, contributions and organizational factors that will eventually result in the accidents.


There is a wide range of accident types. The types of accidents that may occur include collision, fire, explosion, capsizing, grounding, among others. Grounding and fire on board are the main types of maritime accidents.


Accidents are processes that involve a number of errors, failures and uncontrolled environmental impacts. This set of events is called accidental events, and each event is characterized by the following attributes: hazardous material, environmental effects, equipment failure, human error and other agent or ship.


The ever-increasing number of electrical appliances used during everyday life means that the number of potential ignition sources within the accommodation area of a ship may have greatly increased since it was first built. As a result, the use of multi-gang extension leads is commonplace. These are often used to compensate for the fact that there are not sufficient socket outlets available within cabins.


Another area where fires commonly occur on a vessel is within the engine room. Over 50% of fires within the engine room are caused by fuel/lubricating oil leakage onto hot surfaces.


Shipboard fires present a unique set of challenges due to the confined spaces, complex structures, and limited access to firefighting resources. These fires can rapidly escalate, endangering the lives of crew members and the stability of the vessel itself. Identifying the causes and sources of shipboard fires is crucial in formulating effective prevention and mitigation strategies.

Advancements in technology have paved the way for more sophisticated fire prevention and detection systems onboard ships. State-of-the-art equipment, such as smoke and heat detectors, flame detectors, and automated fire suppression systems, have become increasingly prevalent. Furthermore, the integration of smart technologies and IoT (Internet of Things) solutions allows for real-time monitoring and rapid response to potential fire incidents.

For a deeper understanding of Shipboard fire hazards and fire safety please visit: Battling Shipboard Fires: A Comprehensive Guide to Maritime Fire Safety

Safety Measures

Despite the challenges posed by shipboard fires, there are several effective safety measures that can be implemented to prevent and combat such incidents. These measures are crucial for the safety of passengers, crew, and the vessel itself. Some of the key safety measures include:

  1. Regular fire drills and training: Conducting regular fire drills and providing comprehensive training to passengers and crew members is essential. This ensures that everyone on board is familiar with emergency procedures, knows how to operate firefighting equipment, and can respond quickly and effectively in case of a fire.
  2. Use of fire-resistant materials: The construction of ships should involve the use of fire-resistant materials. These materials have properties that can withstand high temperatures and slow down the spread of fire, providing valuable time for evacuation and firefighting efforts.
  3. Installation of fire detection and suppression systems: Implementing advanced fire detection and suppression systems is critical. Smoke detectors, heat detectors, and flame detectors can promptly identify the presence of fire and trigger alarms. Fire suppression systems, such as sprinkler systems, water mist systems, or gaseous suppression systems, can help contain and extinguish fires before they escalate.
  4. Application of fire retardants on cargo: Certain cargoes, particularly those prone to combustion, can be treated with fire retardants. These substances help reduce the flammability and slow down the spread of fire, providing additional protection during transportation.

These safety measures should be implemented in compliance with international regulations and guidelines, such as those set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), to ensure standardized fire safety practices across the maritime industry.

It is important for ship operators, crew members, and regulatory authorities to work collaboratively to prioritize fire prevention, invest in proper training and equipment, and continuously assess and improve fire safety protocols. By doing so, the risks associated with shipboard fires can be significantly reduced, enhancing the overall safety of maritime operations.


Fire prevention

Fire prevention is crucial on ships as the crew cannot rely on local fire departments to extinguish fires at sea. To ensure the safety of the vessel and its crew, effective fire prevention measures must be in place to minimize the occurrence of fire incidents.

Fire prevention starts with identifying and rectifying fuel oil, lubricating oil, and exhaust gas leakages. Leaky high-pressure fuel pipes in a ship’s generator room pose a significant fire hazard. Oil dripping from these pipes can come into contact with high-temperature exhaust manifolds or sensitive points like indicator cocks, leading to fire ignition.

To mitigate such risks, modern fuel high-pressure pipes are sheathed, and any leakage is directed to a fuel leak-off tank located at the bottom of the engine. Regular testing of the tank’s high-level alarm ensures the system’s integrity and helps prevent fires caused by fuel leaks.

Another crucial fire prevention measure is providing effective laggings or insulation to hot surfaces. This includes areas like generator turbocharger bellows, main engine exhaust uptakes, steam pipes, and hot oil-carrying pipes. Proper laggings help prevent heat transfer and reduce the risk of fire. Ship staff can handle laggings, but specialist contractors are available for more aesthetically pleasing work.

It is important to develop a habit of reinstalling lagging after any maintenance work that requires its removal. This ensures that the thermal insulation remains intact, minimizing the chances of fire outbreaks.

By addressing leakages, implementing effective lagging, and maintaining proper systems, ships can significantly reduce the risk of fires and enhance fire safety onboard. Fire prevention measures are essential for the protection of the crew, the vessel, and its valuable cargo.


Fire detection

Fire detection systems on ships play a vital role in early fire detection and timely response, helping to prevent the spread of fires and ensure the safety of the vessel and its occupants. Several types of fire detectors are commonly used on ships. Here are the main ones:

  1. Smoke Detectors: Smoke detectors are one of the most widely used fire detection devices on ships. They utilize optical sensors that can detect the presence of smoke particles in the air. When smoke is detected, the alarm is triggered, alerting the crew to the potential fire. There are two main types of smoke detectors commonly used on ships: light obscuration type and ionization type. Light obscuration smoke detectors use optical sensing to detect smoke particles obstructing a light source, making them effective for detecting smoldering fires in accommodation areas. Ionization smoke detectors use ionization chambers and are more responsive to fast-burning, flaming fires that release electrically charged particles. However, smoke detectors are not designed to detect liquid or gas fires without visible smoke, for which other detection methods like heat detectors or gas detectors are used.
  2. Heat Detectors: Heat detectors are designed to respond to changes in temperature. They can detect rapid increases in temperature or when the ambient temperature exceeds a predetermined threshold. Heat detectors are commonly used in areas where smoke detectors may not be suitable, such as engine rooms or other spaces with high levels of dust, fumes, or humidity.Heat detectors are of various types such as rate of rise type, which has bi-metallic type detecting elements – a thick strip and a thin strip. The thin strip is more sensitive to temperature rise than the thicker one.  If there is a sudden rise in temperature, the thin one bends faster than the thicker one, bringing both of them in contact.During normal temperature rise both strips will deflect about the same amount and thus show no reaction. Normally if rate of rise is less than 10 deg C in half an hour, the detector will not give any alarm. If the rate should rise to 75 degree Celsius, or more, the two strips come in contact, thus triggering the alarm.
  3. Flame Detectors: Flame detectors are specifically designed to detect the presence of open flames. They use sensors that can recognize the specific wavelengths of light emitted by flames. The light produced by a flame has a characteristic flicker frequency of about 25Hz. The spectrum in the infrared or ultraviolet range can be monitored to give an alarm.  Flame detectors are particularly effective in detecting fires that produce little smoke or are hidden from the view of smoke detectors, such as fires involving flammable liquids or gases. Oil fires generally do not give off much smoke and this type of sensor is preferred, especially near fuel handling equipment or boilers to give an early warning.
  4. Gas Detectors: Gas detectors are utilized to detect the presence of combustible or toxic gases in the air. They can sense a wide range of gases, including flammable gases, hydrocarbons, and toxic gases. Gas detectors are essential for detecting potential fuel leaks or hazardous gas releases that can lead to fire or explosion hazards.
  5. Linear Heat Detection Systems: Linear heat detection systems consist of a heat-sensitive cable or fiber-optic cable that runs throughout an area or along the length of a cable tray. These cables are designed to detect temperature changes and can trigger an alarm when a specific temperature threshold is exceeded or when the cable is damaged.
  6. Flame Ionization Detectors: Flame ionization detectors (FIDs) are used in specific applications, such as detecting fires in enclosed spaces or cargo holds. FIDs operate by ionizing combustible gases in the presence of a flame, generating an electrical signal that triggers an alarm.

It is important to note that different types of fire detectors may be used in combination to provide comprehensive fire detection coverage throughout different areas of a ship. The selection and placement of fire detectors depend on the specific requirements and regulations applicable to the vessel, as well as the nature of the spaces being monitored. Regular maintenance, testing, and calibration of fire detection systems are essential to ensure their reliable operation and effectiveness in detecting fires at the earliest possible stage.


Fire fighting

When a fire breaks out onboard a vessel, immediate and effective firefighting measures are crucial. The maritime industry has witnessed notable advancements in firefighting equipment and techniques. From advanced fire suppression agents to portable and high-pressure water mist systems, these innovations aim to suppress fires quickly, limit their spread, and reduce the damage caused.

Fighting fires on ships involves a combination of automatic systems and manual methods. Automatic systems release water or fire suppressant gases, while manual methods utilize fire hoses, handheld extinguishers, buckets, and sand.

There are six different types of handheld extinguishers, each designed for specific types of fires:

  1. Powder fire extinguishers: These are effective for mixed-risk environments and particularly suitable for fires involving flammable gases. They can effectively smother and suppress such fires.
  2. Foam fire extinguishers: Foam extinguishers are ideal for fires involving solid combustible materials and are highly effective on flammable liquid fires. The foam forms a layer that helps prevent re-ignition after the fire has been extinguished.
  3. CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) fire extinguishers: CO2 extinguishers are suitable for use on flammable liquid fires and are extremely effective in extinguishing fires involving electrical equipment. The CO2 displaces oxygen, suffocating the fire.
  4. Water fire extinguishers: Water extinguishers are suitable for use in environments with solid combustible materials like wood, paper, and textiles. However, they should not be used around electrical equipment, unless water extinguishers with additives specifically designed for such use are available.
  5. Wet chemical fire extinguishers: Wet chemical extinguishers are equipped with a special application lance and are designed for tackling large burning oil fires. They are commonly used in kitchen or galley environments where the risk of oil fires is higher.
  6. Water mist fire extinguishers: Water mist extinguishers work by cooling the fire, suffocating it, and preventing re-ignition using microscopic water particles. They are effective in covering areas with multiple fire risks and can be used in various environments.

It is important to use the appropriate type of extinguisher for the specific type of fire, as using an unsuitable extinguisher can be ineffective or even dangerous. Proper training and knowledge of fire extinguisher types and their applications are essential for crew members to effectively combat fires on ships.


Technology Advancements

The development of new fire-fighting foams and extinguishing agents

New fire-fighting foams and extinguishing agents are being developed that are more effective at fighting shipboard fires. These new agents are designed to be more effective at penetrating and extinguishing fires in confined spaces, such as engine rooms and cargo holds. They are also designed to be less harmful to the environment than traditional fire-fighting agents.

The use of drones and robots to fight fires in confined spaces

Drones and robots are being used to fight shipboard fires in confined spaces. These robots are equipped with cameras and sensors that allow them to see and navigate in smoke-filled environments. They can also be equipped with fire-fighting equipment, such as hoses and extinguishers. Drones and robots can be used to access areas that are too dangerous for humans, such as below decks and in engine rooms.

The development of new fire detection and suppression systems

New fire detection and suppression systems are being developed that can quickly and effectively detect and suppress shipboard fires. These systems are designed to be more sensitive to fire than traditional systems, and they can be activated automatically or manually. They are also designed to be more effective at suppressing fires, and they can be used to extinguish fires in multiple locations simultaneously.

These technological advancements are helping to improve the safety of ships and the fight against shipboard fires. They are making it easier to prevent fires, detect fires early, and suppress fires quickly. This is helping to reduce the number of shipboard fires and the severity of their impact.


Navy Researchers Look For Safer Firefighting Foams

Researchers at the Naval Research Lab are actively seeking safer alternatives to firefighting foams used by the military. Firefighting foams — called aqueous film-forming foams — are used by the military to rapidly extinguish liquid fuel fires on airplanes and ships.

These foams, known as aqueous film-forming foams, contain fluorine in the form of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). While PFAS chemicals are effective in extinguishing liquid fuel fires, they are persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the human body, potentially leading to adverse health effects.

The scientists at the Naval Research Lab are conducting tests on fluorine-free foams and foams containing fluorine to find a replacement foam that meets military requirements. The tests involve igniting a 5-megawatt fire using ethanol-free gasoline in a controlled environment. The foam is then applied to extinguish the fire, with the goal of meeting the military’s standard of extinguishing the fire within 30 seconds.

During the tests, the foam is carefully applied to separate the vapor from the pool of gas and minimize radiant heat going back into the fuel. The extinction time is measured, and after the fire is extinguished, a burn back test is conducted to measure how long it takes for the foam to degrade and the fire to reignite over the pool.

The researchers analyze the foam’s structure using a dynamic foam analyzer to gain insights into its effectiveness. They are particularly interested in developing an informative foam structure since commercially developed foam makers do not disclose their ingredients.

Tests are also conducted using commercially available fluorine-free foams. However, in a recent test, these foams failed to meet the military’s 30-second extinguishing requirement.

After each test, the foam is safely disposed of through incineration, and the researchers are working closely with the fire marshal to ensure the tests are conducted safely. The goal is to develop a safe and effective firefighting foam in the coming years.

Overall, the research efforts at the Naval Research Lab aim to find a replacement for PFAS-containing firefighting foams, ensuring the safety of personnel and the environment while maintaining the military’s firefighting capabilities.

Safety measures and regulations

In response to the recurring incidents, maritime authorities and organizations have implemented stringent safety measures and regulations. International conventions, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), prescribe guidelines for fire safety, training, and emergency response. These regulations aim to minimize the occurrence of fires and ensure the safety of crew members and passengers onboard.


A modern ship is required by SOLAS, national and classification society rules to be built with an integral fire-fighting system. The main objective of the SOLAS Convention is to specify the minimum requirements for the construction, equipment and operation of ships (SOLAS, 2014). For the prevention of fires on board, there is the International Code for Fire Safety Systems, hereinafter FSS Code, that aims to provide international standards of intrinsic engineering specifications for fire safety systems required by chapter II-2 of SOLAS and became mandatory after 1 July 2002.


These safety measures and technological advancements have helped to reduce the number of shipboard fires and the severity of their impact. However, shipboard fires remain a major hazard, and it is important to continue to invest in safety and technology to prevent and fight these fires.


US GAO submits recommendations to prevent US Navy warship fires

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has submitted recommendations to the US Navy to prevent warship fires following significant losses and damages. The GAO’s report highlighted the lack of consistent sharing of lessons learned from fires across the Navy and the absence of a standard evaluation for the effectiveness of fire safety training. The report referenced the USS Bonhomme Richard fire in 2020, which resulted in the loss of the vessel. The GAO emphasized the need for a consistent process to collect, analyze, and share lessons learned to improve fire safety practices and prevent costly mistakes. The report made three recommendations, including establishing a process for collecting lessons learned, analyzing the effects of fires, and implementing service-wide goals and measures for fire-safety training. The US Navy concurred with all three recommendations, according to the GAO.


Human Errors

The human error is the leading cause of the accidental events. As regards human factors, non-detection of technical failures is the main cause of accidents. Lack of knowledge and operating and emergency procedures is important contributor. Regarding daily operations, the supervision is the most common causal factor whereas issues related to emergency procedures, under the management and resources classification, occur frequently in the accidents analyzed.


Human error remains a significant contributor to shipboard fires. Therefore, investing in comprehensive training and education for crew members is essential. Training programs cover various aspects, including fire prevention, response protocols, the proper use of firefighting equipment, and evacuation procedures. Equipping crew members with the knowledge and skills to tackle fire incidents significantly improves the chances of successful fire suppression and ensures their safety.



Collaboration and information sharing play a crucial role in combating shipboard fires. Industry stakeholders, including ship operators, regulatory bodies, maritime safety organizations, and technology providers, must come together to exchange knowledge and experiences. This collaborative approach fosters the development of best practices, standards, and innovative solutions to address the ever-evolving challenges associated with shipboard fires.



In conclusion, shipboard fires continue to pose a significant threat to the maritime industry, despite the implementation of robust safety measures and technological advancements. Overcoming these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach that encompasses regulations, innovative technologies, enhanced training, and collaboration among industry stakeholders.


By continually striving for improvements in fire prevention, detection, and firefighting capabilities, the maritime sector can enhance the safety of ships and protect the lives of those at sea. Only through this collective effort can the battle against shipboard fires be won, ensuring a safer and more secure future for the maritime industry.


References and resources also include:





About Rajesh Uppal

Check Also

Navigating the Growing Space Debris Threat: Mitigating Accidents and Ensuring Safe Space Operations

Introduction: Space exploration has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos, but it has also led …

error: Content is protected !!