Cargo ship on fire and adrift at sea: What firefighters can learn from the response efforts

The Felicity Ace was carrying approximately 4,000 vehicles, with electric vehicles hampering extinguishment efforts


In mid-February, the Felicity Ace, an oceanic car carrier (cargo ship), experienced a fire event that left the vessel adrift in the Atlantic Ocean with a crew of salvage firefighters trying to manage an overwhelming event. The ship is approximately 220 yards long (more than two football fields) and was burning from one end to the other from 5 feet above the water line to the top deck.

On the surface, you might dismiss this scenario, wondering how a giant shipping vessel fire applies to everyday land-based firefighting. But consider this: You arrive on scene of a sub-grade parking garage, vehicle warehouse/storage facility, recycling/salvage yard or vehicle manufacturing facility, and immediately identify that you have a unique fire fuel load and a widespread, uncontained fire event.

We are largely unprepared for these scenarios, not just the magnitude of all that’s involved in such events but more so because the fuel load is so unique. This is a new animal, and much of the information connected to this fuel load is misguided or incorrect.

In this undated photo provided by the Portuguese Navy, smoke billows from the burning Felicity Ace car transport ship as seen from the Portuguese Navy NPR Setubal ship southeast of the mid-Atlantic Portuguese Azores Islands. The ship's crew were taken by helicopter to Faial island on the archipelago, about 170 kilometers (100 miles) away on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. There were no reported injuries.
In this undated photo provided by the Portuguese Navy, smoke billows from the burning Felicity Ace car transport ship as seen from the Portuguese Navy NPR Setubal ship southeast of the mid-Atlantic Portuguese Azores Islands. The ship's crew were taken by helicopter to Faial island on the archipelago, about 170 kilometers (100 miles) away on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. There were no reported injuries. (Portuguese Navy via AP)

The specific fuel load is lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and their associated high-voltage systems.

What happened to the Felicity Ace?

The Felicity Ace left Germany carrying approximately 4,000 new vehicles destined for Rhode Island. The vehicles include Porsches, Audis and Bentleys, all owned by parent company Volkswagen. Some of these vehicles are electric vehicles (EVs).

The origin and cause of the fire is unknown at this time and has not been directly linked to the EVs, but it has been widely reported that the EVs are the cause of the continuing struggle as the vehicles continue to produce gaseous fires that are incredibly difficult to contain in this setting.

The crew of the Felicity Ace was evacuated the same day the fire broke out, and a specialized team of 16 salvage firefighters from Dutch company Smit Salvage are currently aboard the ship attempting to manage the hazards and save the ship.

The estimated value of cargo, which does not include the value of the ship, is estimated at $255 million.

The layout of cargo creates a unique challenge for firefighters. Vehicles are stored on ships either in shipping containers or they are simply driven onto the ship. In this scenario, it appears that the vehicles were driven onto the ship and placed in designated parking spaces as efficiently as possible to maximize cargo space.

To enhance additional cargo space availability, many of these ships have mobile “tween decks” that can be positioned with minimal head clearance to allow more cargo to be loaded.

There is significant damage visible to the entire vessel, and at the time of this writing, the ship is listing slightly to one side. Excessive water cannot be introduced to the interior of the ship as it can exceed its load capacity and produce unbalanced loading which could result in the ship capsizing or sinking.

As of Feb. 25, the fire is reportedly extinguished.

Preplanning and possible solutions for unique fire loads

Remember the alternative scenarios above? Sub-grade parking garage, vehicle warehouse/storage facility, recycling/salvage yard or vehicle manufacturing facility. Place yourself in one of these scenarios with a unique fire fuel load and a widespread, uncontained fire event. Then ask yourself if they don’t present similar challenges.

Preplanning: Preplanning structures and emergency action plans to deal with high-risk structures and fuel loads is essential. If you don’t have these types of structures in your district, you will soon.

As the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), fire departments should lean heavily on subject-matter experts (SMEs) for the facilities as well as the fuel loads. This means facility managers and technical specialist as well as specialists in the field of EVs and Li-ion batteries/energy storage systems (ESS). Know the primary hazards associated with potential events, then start developing solutions.

Solutions: Let’s begin with the facilities or structures, using a parking garage as an example. Parking garages will house EVs and, most likely, Level 3 DC fast-chargers for those vehicles. Some factors of note:

  • Garages should be equipped with proper detection and communication capabilities to identify an event and alert first responders.
  • Suppression systems should be in place, providing a combination of standpipe and sprinkler capabilities.
  • Structures should have additional fire protection in place in areas identified for EVs, and it would optimal if EVs were parked in predetermined locations.
  • Mechanical ventilation should be considered with proper isolation and management of potentially toxic and flammable gas and smoke.
  • If chargers are in place, rapidly accessible E stops, which produce desired isolation of the system, should be present. If not, the AHJ should have a strong working knowledge of emergency management of the charging system.

Applying vessel safety systems to land-based structures

To drive home the importance of these considerations, I have included a 16-point overview of safety systems that would be required to be compliantly installed on a maritime shipping vessel. If they require this for ships, why would we not equally and aggressively require the same type of protection and preparation for the buildings in our communities?

  1. Fire retardant bulkhead: Different classes of bulkheads (Class-A, Class-B and Class-C) have used onboard ships for construction of bulkheads in areas like accommodation, machinery space, pump room, etc. The main applications of such bulkheads are to contain or restrict the spread of fire in sensitive areas.
  2. Fire doors: Fire doors are fitted in fire retardant bulkhead to provide access from the same. They are self-closing type doors with no holdback arrangement.
  3. Fire dampers: Dampers are provided in the ventilation system of cargo holds, engine room, accommodation, etc., in order to block the excessive oxygen supply to the fire. For this, it is necessary that open and shut positions clearly marked for fire dampers.
  4. Fire pumps: As per regulation, a ship must have the main fire pump and an emergency power pump of approved type and capacity. The location of the emergency fire pump must be outside the space where the main fire pump is located.
  5. Fire main piping and valves: The fire main piping, which is connected to the main and emergency fire pump, must be of approved type and capacity. Isolation and relief valves must be provided in the line to avoid overpressure of the same.
  6. Fire hose and nozzles: Fire hoses with a length of at least 10 meters are used in ships. The number and diameter of the hoses are determined by the classification society. The nozzle of diameters 12 m, 16 m and 19 m used on the ship are of dual-purpose types – jet and spray mode.
  7. Fire hydrants: Fire hoses are connected to fire hydrants from which the water supply is controlled. They are made up of heat-retardant material to get the least affected from the sub-zero temperatures and also to ensure that hoses can be easily coupled with them.
  8. Portable fire extinguishers: Portable fire extinguishers of CO2, foam and dry chemical powder are provided in accommodation, deck and machinery spaces carried along with a number of spares as given by the regulation.
  9. Fixed fire extinguishing system: CO2, foam and water are used in this type of system, which is installed at different locations on the ship and is remotely controlled from outside the space to be protected.
  10. Inert gas system: The inert gas system is provided in the oil tankers of 20,000 dwt and above and those that are fitted with crude oil washing. The IG system is to protect cargo space from any fire hazards.
  11. Fire detectors and alarms: Fire detection and alarm systems are installed in the cargo area, accommodation, deck areas and machinery spaces along with an alarm system to notify any outbreak of fire or smoke at the earliest.
  12. Remote shut and stop system: The remote station shutdown is provided to all fuel lines from fuel oil and diesel oil tanks in the machinery space and which is done by quick closing valves. A remote stop system is also provided to stop the machinery, like fuel pumps, purifiers, ventilation fans, boiler, etc., in the event of a fire in the engine room or before discharging a fixed firefighting system in the E/R.
  13. Emergency Escape Breathing Device: EEBD is used to escape from a room on fire or filled with smoke. The location and spares of the same must be as per the requirements given in the FSS code.
  14. Firefighter PPE: Firefighter PPE is made up of fire retardant material of approved type. For a cargo ship, at least two sets of PPE, and for a passenger ship at least four sets must be present onboard.
  15. International shore connection: ISC is used to connect shore water to the ship system to fight fire when the ship fire pump system is not operational and is on the port, lay off or dry dock. The size and dimensions are standard for all the ships and at least one coupling with gasket must be present onboard.
  16. Means of escape: Escape routes and passages must be provided at different locations of the ship along with ladders and supports leading to a safe location. The size and location are designed as per the regulation.

Emergency response planning

Let’s revisit our parking garage scenario as we consider the broader issue of emergency response planning.

If we proactively implement, or at a minimum identify, and understand all of the safety features needed for the structure, then we have laid a good preventative foundation. We must play the “what if” game now. What if this fails or that fails, or a vehicle actually does catch on fire? Are the preventative mechanisms in place adequate to contain the event? The most likely answer is, unfortunately, no.

These events will require you to augment the preventative mechanisms by taking over with less passive and more active applications. Preventative measures will perform more like Band-Aids in many cases that will buy some time. So, start game-planning solutions to the what-ifs and connecting all the dots to execute your solutions.

Here’s how the scenario may play out, plus questions to consider:

  • If we must enter the garage during an active EV fire, what hose pack is optimal and how many lines do we need? Identify adequate water supply and identify optimal apparatus placement to support supply and attack.
  • Are transitional attacks possible from outside of the structure initially? In sub-grade situations, they will not be, so crews must be prepared to deal with atmospheric management of the toxic and flammable gasses that will be produced from the EVs.
  • If the vehicle has a significant state of charge, there will be highly pressurized gas releases that often exceed first responders’ expectations of the massive quantity of gas expelled. Have a ventilation plan in place to help manage the atmosphere, and avoid a significant introduction of positive pressure during the event.
  • Exhaust points of the gas must be considered and managed to avoid relocating undesirably and dangerous atmospheres to populated or exposure risk areas.
  • Consider approach angles to the vehicles to facilitate stream applications being bounced off the ground and onto the undercarriage of the vehicle(s) involved. Vehicles often need to be lifted on one side to gain proper access to the batteries. Consider the use of affordable and replaceable mechanisms, such as high-lift jacks.
  • Careful consideration should also be given to alternative suppression solutions, such as fire blankets that could facilitate quick suffocation of the fire to allow adjacent vehicles and exposures to be relocated and provide easier access to the primary fire source. Develop an in-depth understanding of the fuel-rich atmosphere that will be created under the blanket, and have a plan in place to combat it when the blanket is removed and the fire is allowed to breath. It will most likely reignite, and it will do so in a much more explosive manner.

Removal of the vehicle(s) is an additional point of planning, as post-incident movement often results in additional short-circuiting and secondary fire and off-gassing. Put a plan in place to manage the movement, coordinate with tow and recovery services, and then make the vehicle safe prior to relinquishing control of the vehicle. This requires stable and near-ambient battery temperatures for one hour prior to hauling of the vehicle.

SAE Standard J2990 outlines all of these EV interaction requirements for first responders, and the Energy Security Agency provides 24/7 guidance, much like CHEMTREC for hazmat.

It’s time to prepare

The electric revolution is upon us as a fire service, and it is imperative that we get prepared. Planning should lead to education and resource-gathering and progress to practicing and refining – and then practicing some more. Follow the age-old process and the game will produce prepared professionals that apply their training and get the job done.

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