Electric Vehicles and Maritime Transportation – Fire Hazards Identified

Rich Madden
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February 18, 2022

(Note: This article was originally written and submitted to gCaptain prior to the Felicity Ace fire, the cause of which is not yet known. It has been updated to include commentary on this event and the emerging Grimaldi/Euroferry fire off Corfu in the Mediterranean.)

Fire onboard a ship can be catastrophic. Many types of fires have standard firefighting procedures, but innovative installations onboard or different cargoes lead to new risks. One of those emerging risks is in the carriage of electric vehicles (EV) onboard roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) vessels in particular.

As far back as 2013, the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development had commissioned a study to determine if the carriage of electric vehicles on ro-pax or ro-ro vessels increased the risk of fire onboard.  The conclusion was that the carriage of electrically powered vehicles (BEV and HEV) results in an increased risk of fire. The study additionally addressed fire protection and firefighting procedures including a discussion of additional firefighting measures onboard ro-pax and ro-ro vessels.

“In the event of a lithium ion battery catching fire, it is important to note that such a fire reaches very high temperatures, produces toxic gases and is inextinguishable.”

The recommendations from the German BMVBS included :

  • BEV/HEV and FC vehicles should be transported in special areas (equipped with appropriate detectors, fire-extinguishing equipment and fire-extinguishing agents). In the case of a fire, possibly separation of such vehicles by means of a water wall or mobile partitions (roller blinds).
  • The awareness of fire-fighting teams should be raised with regard to the dangers arising from BEV/HEV and FC vehicles and their training should be extended accordingly.

In 2016, DNV-GL released a report addressing fires on ro-ro cargo decks.  It was not focused on electric vehicles and addressed all factors regarding ro-ro cargo fires in eighteen incidents. The recommendations included :

  • Quick release of the fixed fire-extinguishing system is important, in particular for open Ro-Ro decks where the window of opportunity may be less than 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Shift of cargo represents a risk. At least for cargo Ro-Ro and vehicle carriers, improved cargo securing and weather routing should be considered.
  • A policy on how to handle alternative-fuel vehicles should be developed, if applicable (know-how on correct firefighting strategy/challenges), although this is not identified as a major risk (it is an unknown risk).

DNV-GL’s identification of “shift of cargo represents a risk” is particularly pertinent to the carriage of electric vehicles.  The diagram below from the Journal of The Electrochemical Society looks at four conditions that can lead to lithium ion battery (LIB) thermal runaway – one of which is mechanical abuse.  In other words, simply having lashings fail in a seaway with a cargo of EV shifting could lead to a thermal runaway and ensuing fire.

Courtesy of Journal of The Electrochemical Society – Review—Meta-Review of Fire Safety of Lithium-Ion Batteries: Industry Challenges and Research Contributions (2020)

As EV become more common, they are increasingly being carried by ocean transportation. While not specifically implicated in a number of recent ro-ro fires, the hazards of batteries in general have been identified by the U.S. Coast Guard in Marine Safety Alert 06-20 Recognizing Fire Hazards & Proper Cargo Stowage on RO-RO Vessels and various protection and indemnity organizations including the Britannia and UK P&I clubs.

The source of the USCG MSA and the P&I club articles are mainly accident reports from fires that have occurred.  Much like the DNV-GL report of 2016, recent accident reports are used to gain insights as to how similar incidents might be prevented.  Unfortunately, access to these reports is not a guarantee as it is at the discretion of the flag state investigating.  As noted in the main picture above, the accident report for Sincerity Ace was submitted to IMO a year ago, yet is not publicly available from the flag state – Panama.  It has been surmised that this ro-ro cargo fire – along with five fatalities – might be EV-related.

Other information on how EV and LIB fires might be fought can be found by going outside the maritime industry.  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has produced an Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide that addresses EV emergency response for first responders ashore. Unfortunately, many of the procedures and recommendations might not be applicable at sea due to stowage and space.

Courtesy of Britannia P&I Club

There is continued interest in EV and LIB fires in transportation. The U.S. Transportation Research Board has funded a study for 2022 noting, “Lithium-ion battery fire risks are currently undermanaged in transit operations.”  More immediately, the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) hosted a presentation by Captain Jim Staples of Ocean River LLC, “Understanding the Risk when Carrying Electric Vehicles on a Vessel,” on February 17th. 

Captain Jim Staples presenting at SOCP

Some of the takeaways from Captain Staples’ presentation include :

  • General construction of lithium-ion batteries
  • Hazards of construction – whether exclusively electric or hybrid vehicles
  • Overview of recent ro-ro fires and challenges of EV firefighting
  • Identified quick reference for emergency response to EV fires from manufacturers and NFPA
  • Current best practices including thermal cameras for early identification of thermal runaway and appropriate PPE for shipboard first responders

Captain Staples also called for the release of the accident report from Sincerity Ace, opining that the incident might have been related to an EV fire. Meanwhile, Felicity Ace continues to burn in the Atlantic Ocean to the Southwest of the Azores. The Portugese Navy is standing by after rescuing the crew of Felicity Ace and salvors are said to be enroute. If salvors are able to contain the fire and bring the vessel to port, we can hope there are lessons learned that will be made public.

Another ongoing ro-ro fire is on a Grimaldi/Euroferry vessel operating between the Greek port of Igoumenitsa to Brindisi, in eastern Italy. Catching fire at 9:30 PM (EST) on 17 February, one crewmember has been sent ashore with injuries, two persons are reported trapped on the car deck, with all other passengers and crew reported as safe. Initial word is that the fire started on the cargo decks and the video below shows extensive damage to trucks stowed on the upper decks.

Grimaldi is no stranger to fires onboard ro-ros with Grande Europa having a fire onboard in the Mediterranean in 2019 and Grande America burning and then sinking in the Bay of Biscay in 2020. After these two events, Grimaldi stated, “…with reference to rolling freight, the Grimaldi Group requests that there be more controls on car batteries, which often cause short-circuits on board vessels, as well as in port terminals.”

Let’s be safe out there!

Additional Reading and Links

USCG MSA 06-20 RECOGNIZING FIRE HAZARDS & PROPER CARGO STOWAGE ON RO-RO VESSELS

NTSB – Hoegh Xiamen – Fire-CTL – June 2020

UK P&I – Car carrier fires and the associated risks with Electric Vehicle transportation (2021)

Britannia – Loss-Prevention-Insight – Electric Vehicle Fires (2021)

Maritime Safety Innovation Lab – Electric Vehicle Cargo – Fire Hazards

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