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Sat 18 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Under fire

With hazardous cargo such as oil and gas continuing to dominate the region’s sea freight industry, companies must take active measures to reduce the risk of a fire hazard.

With hazardous cargo such as oil and gas continuing to dominate the region's sea freight industry, companies must take active measures to reduce the risk of a fire hazard.

The consequences of a fire on board a vessel or at the port can be destructive - with the effects of damage to staff, cargo and company reputation continuing for many years to come. Regulations to control fire hazards have been put forward by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) such as the SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea), to control the risk of a fire hazard occurring and ensure that the damage it causes is kept to a minimum.

The IMO itself has a long history of fire protection requirements. The latest developments include the Fire Test Procedures Code (FTP code), which entered into force in 1998, and included international requirements for lab testing, type approval and fire test procedures for passenger and cargo ships and tankers.

In 2002, the IMO released a completely revised, more user-friendly, SOLAS chapter II-2, focusing on the ‘fire scenario process' - with regulations covering preventing, detection and suppression to escape. A key part of the new chapter focuses on the ‘human element' of fire protection, namely the need for adequate staff training, drills and additional maintenance issues.

Whilst fire protection usually conjures up the usual images of extinguishers and firefighters with hoses, a core aspect of any company's fail-proof fire protection strategy involves this often overlooked people factor. Steen Davidsen, CEO of APM Terminals Bahrain, agrees. "Companies need to constantly remind and train staff in all safety aspects," he says.

The port operator prides itself in taking a proactive approach to fire safety. "We consider the potential fire risks, including the risk of ignition of dangerous cargo, hot work being carried out within the facility and on vessels, electrical wiring faults, and even the careless disgorging of cigarette butts," says Davidsen.

In order to reduce these risks, the terminal meticulously monitors the import of both dangerous goods, and those that are potentially dangerous, entering or leaving the port. "We also arrange with the agents to deliver potentially dangerous cargo directly to the importers, thus avoiding storage at the port," he adds.

All hot work that takes place within the port facility has to be agreed and approved by the harbour master and HSSE manager. "Electrical insulations are inspected by the department's safety representatives on a regular basis, and smoking rules are enforced by the safety and security patrols," says Davidsen. In addition to fire evacuation drills, the terminal has an emergency response vehicle, crewed by trained fire fighters, to deal with any fire that may occur.

The need for such stringent measures has become increasingly important for ports, particularly as the occurrence of fire incidents on land has been considerably higher than those at sea. Just last month, Port Khalid in Sharjah witnessed its second major fire in the past two years at an oil storage depot on site, shutting down all port operations.

The incident echoed a similar fire which occurred last summer in a lubricants warehouse at the port. Around the same time, DP World's Jebel Ali Port in Dubai was subject to an explosion at one of its chemical storage facilities.

Whilst both the incidents occurred at storage facilities rather than during the handling of cargo at the port, they have hammered home the message to the region's maritime industry of the exceptional importance of protection against fire.The biggest risk to both ports and ships involves handling hazardous or flammable cargo, such as oil, gas and chemicals. An essential part of fire protection for the industry includes an awareness of the fire risk of hazardous goods, and how to handle them correctly to prevent an incident from occurring.

Dr Simon Waldram, visiting professor at the Texas A&M University Qatar (TAMUQ), is involved in a five-year project looking to establish a world class LNG safety research programme in collaboration with British Petroleum (BP), Qatar Petroleum (QP) and the Qatar Foundation.

The findings from the research programme could reveal some useful predictive information on how LNG vapour can disperse, warm and possibly ignite, which can be used to model the consequences of specific accident scenarios whether they be on land or at sea.

"The moral is that the science behind LNG spills and fires must be understood before claims about potential dire consequences are promulgated," emphasises Waldram. "It is absolutely critical for everyone in all phases of the LNG industry to have top class education and training. This is simply because the potential for harm and capital loss is large."

In fact, the risks of cargo spill and fire hazard potential linked to the marine handling of LNG cargo is reportedly low. According to experts, the LNG shipping industry has recorded no spills or incidents on its tankers for 45 years.

"Our understanding from the shipping professionals who we have spoken to is that standards of LNG tanker design are very high and that certification and training of the staff who operate them are also high," agrees Waldram.

As a liquid, LNG cannot explode or burn, instead becoming lighter than air when heated, making it less hazardous than some other fuels. Furthermore, accidents are most likely to occur during cargo transfer operations, hence at the terminals themselves rather than at sea.

"It is most important to understand what happens if an LNG container were to be accidentally breached," Waldram says. "One single large incident could have serious repercussions for the whole of the LNG industry worldwide." To avoid fire hazards, particularly when handling and transporting LNG, he advises that companies need to be fully aware of what the potential hazards are, and to evaluate the risks (the likelihood and harm) associated with these hazards.

"Companies should define a "Basis Of Safety" for their operations - so that they are adequately safe for both normal operations and those mal-operations that you can reasonably anticipate," he adds.

Christer Sjödoff, group vice president, GAC Solutions, concurs that, with a strict code of practice to follow when handling special cargo, the sea freight industry needs to be aware of the different fire hazard control systems on offer for differing types of cargo. "The type of potential risk in transporting oil and gas by sea is determined by the type and nature of cargo being carried, hence it can be volatile and explosive," explains Sjödoff.

"For example LNG and oil tanker protection would require dry chemical base systems, foam based systems, inert gas based systems and water based systems. In addition to these, jetty protection would include water based systems and foam based systems."

Coming to the rescue of the region's maritime industry, GAC has developed a specific business niche to make fire protection an easier option. Launched in April last year, GAC FRS (Fire, Rescue & Safety) provides a one-stop shop in class approved fire, rescue and safety equipment, systems and services essential for a safe voyage.

The aim of the service is to combine GAC's ship agency, logistics and offshore expertise with a service partner network to deliver a seamless, innovative and convenient solution directly to any vessels including new buildings, retrofits and conversions.

The group provides its comprehensive range of fire protection systems through a strategic alliance with the fire and security solutions specialist company, Tyco Fire and Security Asia.

Additionally, GAC covers all brands and systems, and services can be carried out whether at sea, in port or at the dry dock, working with a network of 50 partners to ensure fire protection and systems onboard are constantly maintained. "With new technology and new fire fighting agents, we have the additional advantage of supporting these systems throughout their lifetime with spares, upgrades and training," he adds.Standards requirements for fire protection now include fire safety technologies, ranging from automatic sprinklers, inert gas systems, fire detection systems, fire extinguishers, drills and fire-fighting operations.

At the top of the list of desirables when choosing a new fire hazard control system, however, is the need to find a solution that does not cause detriment either to the environment or personnel. "More and more companies are recognising the fact that proper systems and equipment are basic essentials that can safeguard lives and properties without causing harm," agrees Sjödoff.

Traditional methods of extinguishing fires, such as those relying on the use of Halon, the leading fire suppression agent in the sea freight sector, were banned under the Montreal Protocol in 1989. Halon products were subsequently blocked by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), due to their detrimental effect to the ozone layer.

A popular alternative to Halon has been the CO2 systems, which benefit from being both low cost and easily obtainable. However, due to the potential toxicity of the gas, there is a potential risk to personnel who may be exposed to the discharged gases.

"The aim is to find the most suitable solution, at the same time taking into consideration environmental issues such as ozone depletion, global warming and the greenhouse effect," explains Sjödoff. "We offer customers environmentally friendly fire fighting systems that can re-fit any type of ship - using fire fighting agents such as environmental friendly foam, water based solutions and special gases such as Inergen or Novec, instead of CO2 based solutions."

With so many factors, maritime companies are understandably reaching for comprehensive guidance to ensure the best protection against a fire hazard. The good news is that the IMO is undertaking revised performance testing and approval standards for fire safety systems as part of proposed amendments to the International Code for Fire Safety Systems, in order to harmonise all the organisation's relevant standards. The organisation is also considering measures for tankers transporting flashpoint cargo.

In the interim, whilst technology will also play its role in fire suppression and detection, nothing can replace the need to have trained staff to both prevent the risk of a fire incident and to deal with it effectively.

When it comes to fire safety, there is no room for the industry to rest on its laurels. As Waldram warns, "keep your standards up and never become complacent. The fact that your operations have been safe for the last 20 years will never guarantee that tomorrow will be an accident-free day."

LNG fire safety

Dr Simon Waldram, visiting professor at Texas A&M University Qatar (TAMUQ) tells us more about his research.

What is the LNG safety research programme?

With effect from 1st September 2008 BP Gas Marketing Limited has funded a US$3 million, five-year, research project on "LNG Safety: advancing the science and technology" in the chemical engineering department at TAMUQ.

Is there a greater fire risk associated with transporting LNG?

There are some misconceptions about hazards that are associated with LNG. Unlike other types of fuel, LNG is stored refrigerated at its boiling point and at essentially atmospheric pressure. Fuels like propane or butane are in most circumstances stored under pressure but at atmospheric temperature.

Thus if the propane or butane container is breached the fuel will vaporise very rapidly and form a large flammable cloud almost immediately. This is called a BLEVE and if ignition occurs can result in a major blast wave and associated consequential damage.

What can happen if a LNG container is accidentally breached?

As the cold, liquid LNG flows out of its containment it will be heated by the environment and will boil producing LNG vapour. The amount of vapour formed, and hence any possible fire, will depend on the rate of heat transfer to the liquid LNG. LNG releases normally cannot result in BLEVEs and any consequent fires are therefore much more controlled.

The moral is that the science behind LNG spills and fires must be understood before claims about potential dire consequences are promulgated.

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