Ship’s Engine Room Fire, Causes & Prevention

Credit: Francesco Ungaro/Pexels

Engine room fires are very challenging to deal with. Whilst out in the middle of the sea, a fire is the last thing you want – especially in the engine room. Did you know that two-thirds of fires on board vessels happen in the engine room? 

Fires on ships can quickly turn into an environmental disaster with massive consequences to the ship, cargo and personnel. It is one of the last things you want to deal with out in the open sea. 

Why should you care about an engine room fire?

Engine room fires are often very challenging to deal with, due to the room’s construction and a plentiful supply of the fire triangle elements: heat, fuel and oxygen. A major engine room fire can have destructive consequences and, in the aftermath, it’s unlikely for a ship to continue under her own power

Fire can happen in many areas that do not have a big effect on the ship’s ability to move, however, if a fire breaks out in the engine room, it can completely cripple the mobility. If standing out in the middle of the sea isn’t bad enough, it also puts the crew members and passengers in danger of injury or death.

Sources of ignition

The following heat sources are most likely to start a fire in the engine room:

  • hot exhaust pipe
  • engine surfaces
  • bearings of rotating machinery heating up
  • defunct electrical equipment.

What causes an engine room fire?

There are all sorts of flammable liquids in the engine room on ships. All three elements of the fire triangle are present and when combined with bad luck, a fire could break out resulting in devastating consequences. 

This could easily come from all the heat sources in the engine room. Things like a hot exhaust pipe, defunct electrical equipment and engine surfaces are all sources of ignition. However, fire in the engine room could also come from human errors during different kinds of maintenance in the engine room.

What system should you use for an engine room fire?

The standard equipment used for fighting a fire in the engine room is usually hand-held fire extinguishers and fixed extinguishing systems. However, this does not prevent a fire. In order to prevent an engine room fire, an atmospheric oil leakage detector should be a top priority of yours. 

Oil mist and vapours come from processes that use fuel oils – just like a vessel. An oil leakage detector will alert you if the level of oil mist and or gases in the engine room increases. It sets off an alarm resulting in more safety during trips across the sea.

Get ready for engine room fires

Ship personnel should be well prepared for a fire situation. For this to happen, it is essential that realistic fire drills are carried out frequently.

The standard equipment used for fighting a fire in the engine room of a ship is:

  • hand-held fire extinguishers
  • a large capacity extinguisher
  • fire pumps and fire hoses
  • the fixed fire extinguishing system.

Sometimes, ship operators hire specialist fire training companies to provide advanced training onboard their ships.

Particular attention to the cleanliness of the engine room

  • High standards of cleanliness should be kept at all times as they are crucial for fire prevention.
  • No oils or oily rags should be allowed close to heat sources, such as boilers and the main engine’s exhaust system.
  • In some ships, there is a large collection of used spare parts and items which are “nice to have”, such as plastic sheets, wooden planks, used paint tins, etc., being stored in fire-prone areas.
  • All combustible materials should be discarded, along with any outdated equipment that may hinder access in a fire situation.
  • Tank tops and bilges should be cleaned and hosed down frequently.

All of the above indicates that a clean engine room represents a smaller fire hazard than a dirty one.

Special focus should be paid to possible fire risks while repairs are carried out or directly afterwards. No hot work in the engine room should initiate, without having the potential risks identified and all the necessary hot work precautions taken. 

Oftentimes after maintenance work, the available time to get the ship back to operation can be insufficient, and the refitting of removed insulation is often left to be completed by the crew during the voyage.

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Source: boss magazine