April 27, 2006
MAIB finds problems in with balcony fire protection
The investigation into the Star Princess fire has "already identified serious shortcomings in fire protection on ships' balconies" says Britain's Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).
A Safety Bulletin published by MAIB says that "following the accident, it has been determined by practical tests that the materials at the seat of the fire were readily ignitable, and that the polycarbonate balcony divisions generated intense heat and copious amounts of dense black smoke as they burned."
The fire broke out while the ship was on passage from Grand Cayman to Montego Bay, Jamaica on March 2006. There were 2,690 passengers and 1,123 crew on board.
The seat of the fire was on an external balcony sited on deck 10 of the vessel's port side. The fire spread rapidly along adjacent balconies and within ten minutes had spread to decks above. It also spread internally. One passenger died as the result of smoke inhalation and 13 others were treated for the effects of smoke.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined and the MAIB is continuing its investigation on behalf of the Bermuda Maritime Administration in cooperation with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The Safety Bulletin notes the SOLAS convention regulations on construction, fire protection, fire detection and fire extinction, "do not, currently, prescribe the combustibility of materials used on external balcony areas, as these are not included within the vessel's fire zones. Similarly, balcony areas on cruise ships are not required to have fixed fire detection or suppression systems, as would be the case in internal areas. Additionally, balcony areas are frequently difficult to monitor due to their inaccessibility. This accident clearly demonstrates the risk of a serious fire starting and quickly spreading in areas not covered by regulation."
The bulletin notes that installation of balconies, similar to those on board Star Princess, has become increasingly common in modern passenger vessels.
"It is vital to ensure that the fire protection arrangements within a ship, such as zoning, are not undermined by lack of appropriate measures externally," says MAIB. "Immediate action is therefore required internationally, to address the risk of fire in external areas such as balconies, and to stop the potentially catastrophic spread of any such fire."
The Safety Bulletin notes that the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) has issued a safety notice (appended to the bulletin as an annex) to its members and other associations, identifying immediate actions to mitigate the risk and additional actions to be undertaken within 3 months and 6 months, to provide longer term solutions in existing ships.
The short term measures include:
MAIB notes that industry has also agreed to implement medium-term structural measures as soon as practical. One of the ICCL recommendations is that cruise lines "in consultation
with regulatory authorities replace all inappropriate materials on balcony areas with materials that are determined to be acceptable. Replace all combustible balcony dividers on a priority basis and as soon as possible with dividers that are of non-combustible material."
The U.K.'s Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, Stephen Meyer, praised the industry for its speedy response. He said:
"Fires such as this are extremely rare and I am confident that the cruise industry has identified measures to ensure that a similar accident will not happen again. In the meantime we will continue with our investigation and to monitor the implementation of our recommendations."
The Safety Bulletin makes three recommendations. The U.K. Government is recommended to request IMO's Maritime Safety Committee to consider making changes in SOLAS. The cruise industry is recommended to take urgent action to comply with measures outlined in an ICCL Safety Notice that is appended to the MAIB Safety Bulletin. Flag states should urgently review the fire safety integrity of external areas of passenger ships on their register, to ensure that the immediate and medium-term actions taken in the light of this Safety Bulletin are effective.