Statistics with Reference to Fires on Shipboard
One of Most Dreadful Perils of the Sea—Losses of Lives and Property from This Cause—Some Startling Figures—Remedial Measures Suggested
Associate Member, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers
FIRE on shipboard is generally considered to be one of the most dreaded perils of the sea. The report of the Supervising Inspector General of the Steamboat Inspection Service, U. S. Department of Commerce, for the year ending June 30, 1914, states “It is believed that the greatest peril which has to be met on board ship is fire.” Notwithstanding this fact, it is a difficult matter to compile statistics on the subject Fortunately, however, United States Statutes compel shipowners to make full reports of casualties to the Supervising Inspectors of the several districts, from whom they are sent to the Supervising General of the Steamboat Inspection Service, in Washington, D. C., and by him compiled and reported each year.
In the interest of the preservation of the lives of those who “go down to the sea in ships” and the conservation of the enormous values in the hulls and the cargo which they transport, this summary and comment with respect to ship losses by fire is submitted. It is hoped that the facts and figures herein set forth may awaken those interested to the knowledge of the large percentage of losses by fire in relation to total marine losses, and to the necessity, if we are to succeed with an American Merchant Marine, of reducing this marine hazard to a minimum.
The facts herein submitted may for convenience be grouped under the following heads:
- Marine Property Losses By Fire.
- Location of the Source of Fires on Shipboard.
- Lives Lost and Casualties by Ship Fires.
- Causes of Marine Fires.
- Remedial Suggestions.
- Marine Property Losses By Fire
- Location of Fires on Shipboard
- Lives Lost and Casualties by Ship Fires
- Causes of Marine Fires
- Remedial Suggestions
The following figures are taken from the annual reports of the Supervising Inspector General, Steamboat Inspection Service, United States Department of Commerce, and relate only to property losses of hulls and cargo under United States registry.
Leaving out of consideration the two war years, 1917 and 1918, this percentage would be 14.71 per cent, in comparison with the above percentage of 12.14. Thus it may be said without exaggeration that 1/7 of all the property lost at sea is lost by fire damage.
The next question naturally arises where do the fires originate which caused the enormous losses above tabulated. It would be useless to attempt to suggest any remedy for cutting down these losses without first answering this question. Resort was had in the following tables to marine casualties reported in the New York Maritime Register.
It may be said that the greater number of fires in non-passenger vessels is accounted for by the fact that they vastly outnumber the passenger ships. A reference to actual figures will therefore be illuminating. According to statistics compiled by Maxwell Ballard, read before the Northeast Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders, December 17, 1920, the total world tonnage “excluding wood, composite, and iron vessels” in 1914 equalled 42,019,515 tons. Of this amount, 13,345,253 tons were “liners, passenger and intermediate vessels of 12 knots and above.” In 1920 these figures were respectively—49,848,335 and 12,106.594. Thus in 1914, nonpassenger vessels composed approximately 70 per cent, of the total tonnage and in 1920, approximately 75 per cent. Assuming, as thus indicated, 75 per cent, of world’s seagoing steamers are non-passenger vessels, it is seen that the large percentage of non-passenger vessel” fires (94 per cent.) as noted in the above table, is not accounted for by the excessive number of non-passenger vessels over passenger vessels.
The following tabulation gives an interesting story about the place of origin in the ships, of all the marine fires which have occurred during the last six years, on vessels of 2,500 gross tons or over:
* This includes all fires reported of which origin was not specified and undoubtedly a large percentage of them were also cargo fires or below decks.
Of the total 835 fires, it is thus seen that 544 originated below decks, or 65 per cent. Of these 544 originating below decks, there were 392 cargo fires, or 72 per cent, of all fires originating below decks were cargo fires.
Reference to the annual reports of the United States Steamboat Inspection Service covering the period 19101920, inclusive, reveals that total lives lost amounted to 5802, including suicides; and that of this number, 115 deaths were attributed to fire. In other words, of all the lives lost on the sea from all causes, approximately two per cent, were lost by fire. The same reports covering the period 1916-1920, inclusive, show that total casualties numbered 6,447, and that of that number, 455, or 7 per cent., were caused by fire.
As a comparison it is rather startling to note that the violent deaths other than suicide in the United States, during the year 1920 was only 4.9 per cent, of the total deaths. Under “violent deaths” are of course included in addition to fire, railroad, automobile and machinery accidents, tornadoes, floods, etc., etc. Also, of all the casualties recorded in the United States troops engaged in the World War, 4.5 per cent, died from wounds. So it would seem from the above that the casualties and deaths resulting from fire on board ship are abnormally large and proportionately far greater than they are on land.
We list below a few of the more important causes of ship fires, not attempting to give them the proper order of importance or frequency of occurrence:
Oxidation of bunker coal Fuel oil
Breaking of pipes Careless filling of tanks Inflammable vapor Defective wiring Harbor fires, communicated from wharves
Spontaneous combustion in cargo
Carelessness of stevedores and crew
Smoking—matches Friction due to shifting of cargo Rodents
Lamps and torches Fumigation Stoves Lightning Steam pipes.
It will be noted that while many of these causes can be eliminated by special precautions of the master and crew, the majority of them are impossible of prevention in spite of all the ship operators can do. Cargoes accepted and stored are boxed in such a way as to make it utterly impracticable to ascertain their contents or whether sufficient care has been taken in packing.
Because of the peculiar psychology of the human race, man finds it necessary to legislate in the interests of his own self-preservation. Witness the laws, rules and regulations compelling the use of safety appliances of all sorts, such as fire escapes on buildings, safety gates at grade crossings, laws relating to sanitation, factory inspection, automatic couplers on railroad cars, etc., etc. In fact our whole system of Steamboat Inspection Service under the United States Department of Commerce has been developed for this reason. Safety costs money, but it is only fair that all should be compelled to take the same reasonable precautions. This was undoubtedly in the minds of Congress when in 1905 Section 4470 of the U. S. Revised Statutes was passed, providing that every steamer carrying passengers or freight shall be provided with suitable pipes and valves “attached to the boiler to convey steam into the hold and to the different compartments thereof to extinguish fire.” Thus the means to extinguish fire was made mandatory, but there is no provision made for detecting the presence of fire. One of the fundamental principles in fighting a fire is to begin the attack as soon as combustion develops. The great efficiency of the fire department of the city of New York is based upon the theory of getting at the fire at the start.
Based upon authority delegated by Congress in Section 4472, referred to above, the Board of Supervising Inspectors of the Steamboat Inspection Service promulgated the following regulation entitled “Automatic Fire Alarm System”—(Par. 14, Ocean and Coastwise, Rule IV, Edition of May 14, 1920):
All steamers of more than 150 feet in length under the jurisdiction of the Steamboat Inspection Service, whose construction is contracted for after June 30, 1916, which are provided with staterooms or other sleeping quarters for passengers, shall be equipped with an efficient fire-alarm system or indicator which will automatically register, at some central point or station where it can be most quickly observed by the officers or crew of the steamer, the presence or indication of fire in the staterooms and various other compartments of the steamer which are not accessible to the observation of officers or crew.
Although this would seem to require a fire indicating system in all the inaccessible holds and other compartments of every passenger vessel, it has never been the practice to require fire detecting systems in any other part than the staterooms and superstructure of passenger vessels. No fire detecting system has ever been required in the holds and inaccessibles cargo compartments of passenger or non-passenger vessels. From the tabulation of the location of fires on shipboard hereinbefore given it is clearly shown that the greatest danger from fire on shipboard” lies in the holds and cargo compartments on passenger and non-passenger vessels, the hazard being greater in vessels of the latter class.
The American Delegation at the International Conference on Safety of Life at Sea which took place in London on November 10, 1913, and January 20, 1914, presented a preamble and resolutions on fire, its prevention, detection and extinguishing, which was unanimously adopted, reading in part as follows:
Of all the dangers and vicissitudes to which humanity is subject, none is so insidious in its origin, persistent in its encroachment and appalling in its effect as fire, and of all the elements none is so susceptible of control.
“Fire, which is appalling enough when it is encountered on shore, where the means to fight it and the agency of attack is under the control of numbers of men skilled in the manipulation of effective apparatus and educated by experience in meeting fire under varying conditions of location and different stages of progress, but the alarm of fire at sea is the most distressing of the many contingencies which the sailor and the passenger is called upon to face, carrying doubt and hesitation to the mind of one and terror to the heart of the other…….. With the fire in an inaccessible compartment and with no accurate knowledge of its extent or progress, he can only utilize the limited means of attack at his command, and endeavor to control it if its proportions have reached a stage where it is impossible to extinguish it. If the attack is repulsed the passengers and crew are driven from their foothold and made to take refuge in the boats and place themselves at the mercy of the turbulent ocean; nothing to fall back upon as on the land, and no refuge but the face of the open sea.
* * * That the terrrors of this common foe may be defeated and its horrors mitigated you must all agree, that the chances of fires may be made remote we must all acknowledge, and it would seem that this great Congress of the Nations, assembled for the humane purpose of securing the Safety of Life at Sea cannot conclude its work without taking into consideration this important and necessary subject.
* * * With this assurance, and with confidence in our strength to overcome this great danger, the American Delegation has proposed the following resolution :
“Resolved: That the American Delegation proposes the following principle for the consideration of this sub-committee, and requests its adoption and endorsement.
“That the several States signatory to this Conference agree to enact such legislation as will to the fullest possible extent provide for the prevention, detection and extinguishing of fire on ship board, the details of the installation and application of such law to be regulated and arranged by the several signatory States.”
Unfortunately the forward step contemplated to be taken as recommended by this International Conference was never taken. In spite of the fact that the resolution was presented by the American Delegation the Convention itself was not ratified by the United States.
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Statistics of Fires on Shipboard
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From the above does it not seem expedient at this time for Congress to amend the Federal law and compel the installation of suitable fire detecting appliances on all passenger and non-passenger ships, particularly in the inaccessible holds and cargo compartments; such systems only to be permitted as may be approved after full inspection of the Steamboat Inspection Service?
Such a system of fire detection and extinction for use on board ship should provide the following:
- The means to ascertain when and where combustion is taking place before active conflagration begins, in order that the extinguishing medium may be applied immediately at the source of the fire without needlessly damaging cargo by applying an excess quantity of the medium or by applying it where it is not needed.
- The means to fight the fire without opening hatches or endangering the lives of the crew by sending them into smoke-filled compartments to investigate the location of the fire or to extinguish it.
- Means to fight the fire without unnecessarily alarming the passengers and crew.
- Means to determine whether or not the fire is gaining headway and spreading to other parts of the ship.
- Means to determine whether the fire breaks out again after having been supposedly extinguished.
Note—Paper read before and published through the courtesy of the American Society of Safety Engineers.