Over the past decades, there have been several serious fires on ro-ro and ro-pax vessels, some with fatalities and total loss of the ship. Interferry has been heavily engaged in helping to develop new practices and regulations. The regulatory body is the IMO, but much of the groundwork has been done by the European Union’s maritime safety agency EMSA.
In June 2019, after several years of constructive deliberations, Session 101 of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) approved new draft interim guidelines on ro-pax fire safety. Interferry argued that some aspects of the voluntary guidelines required greater discussion to avoid unjustified construction requirements. For instance, the draft stipulates safety distances for life saving appliances in relation to ro-ro deck openings – yet the distances derive from a study urging further research. Many member states shared such concerns.
In March 2020, the seventh annual session of the IMO Ship Systems and Equipment (SSE) sub-committee met to draft SOLAS amendments due in force from January 2024. Two main issues were unresolved at SSE7 – the proposed prohibition of so-called open roro spaces; and how to assess which requirements should apply to existing (pre-2024) ships. This was referred to a correspondence group for ongoing discussion before reporting to SSE8 in March 2021.
Pending the future SOLAS amendments, the IMO has issued the interim guidance, which is voluntary in nature but treated as mandatory by many Member States. Interferry supports almost all this guidance, but regrets that some of the recommendations ignore the point mentioned above about ‘unjustified construction requirements’.
Interferry is involved in the correspondence group that will report its findings to SSE8 next March. The subsequent MSC102/MSC103 meetings are then expected to decide any outstanding items, which would conclude the ro-pax fire safety agenda for the time being. However, it is likely that findings from ongoing R&D projects, such as LASHFIRE, will prompt the EU to ask for the issue to be re-established as an agenda item, possibly around 2025.
The LASHFIRE ro-pax fire safety project is a four-year EU initiative launched in 2019. As one of 27 research and industry partners, Interferry is coordinating input from 12 of its operator members. Last October the association co-sponsored a LASHFIRE webinar focused on the ever-increasing market for alternatively powered vehicles. The overall message was that electric- and gas-powered vehicles on board ferries were not necessarily more dangerous than traditionally fuelled vehicles. However, they posed different fire hazards and therefore required specific regulations, together with distinct prevention, detection and extinguishing methods and special crew training.
During 2021, the project will keep researching various areas of ro-pax fire safety, including:
- Inherently Safe Design
- Ignition Prevention
- Cooperation and Communication
- Formal Safety Assessment
- Effective Manual Operations
- Ship Integration
Due to the pandemic, the normal dissemination channels have yet to re-open, so the project will host topical Webinars on the most pertinent findings. In December, it is planned that a comprehensive work shop will be hosted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in Lisbon.