A Cause for Concern: Container Ship Fires


Staff Content Writer

September 9, 2021 • 4 minutes read

Subscribe to access the latest trends and insights in the logistics industry.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The shipping industry is largely unpredictable, and unforeseen accidents often happen. Your containers may be successfully loaded onto a ship, but there are no guarantees that they will arrive at the correct destination. Containers may be lost at sea, get transported to a different port, or even catch on fire. 

Container ship fires occur more often than expected, and are incredibly costly to manage. Not only that, they are also dangerous, as they start with no warning, and spread out at incredible speeds. And when a shipping container fire occurs, it can create a lot of problems for the parties involved in the supply chain. 

Why do container ship fires occur so often? 

As the years go by, container ships get upgraded, and become bigger and bigger to carry more cargo. However, the fire-fighting equipment has not been modernized alongside ships, so they are incapable of putting out or containing massive fires. It is also difficult for ships to receive external help if they catch on fire in the middle of the sea, so the lack of up-to-date fire fighting equipment can be detrimental to a ship. 

There are other reasons as to why shipping container fires are common occurrences. From equipment malfunctions to flammable cargo, almost anything can spark a flame. Furthermore, container ships are tightly packed, and have narrow passageways. If a section catches on fire, areas nearby are at high risk of going up in flames. And the bigger the ship, the bigger the fire.

What starts the fire in container ships? 

Some common causes of ship fires include: electrical wiring and engine malfunctions, improper use of equipment, and mislabeled combustible cargo. 

  • Electrical wiring breakdowns: If the wiring in ships have been installed improperly, or have been damaged, they may catch on fire. Since a lot of wiring is in hard to reach places on ships, crew members don’t check up on them as often as they should, and only notice that there’s something wrong after a fire begins. 
  • Engine malfunctions: When an engine overheats or malfunctions, it can often start a fire. And when the fire is near oil or fuel, the fire can easily get out of control.  
  • Improper use of equipment: When ships are old, they can catch on fire easier, especially when crew members use kitchen equipment carelessly and do not take proper care of them. Easily damaged kitchen equipment can easily result in fires. 
  • Maintenance: In a more recent case of a shipping container fire, the fire was actually speculated to be kindled by leftover fire sparks from welding maintenance work. The maintenance was done near the containers, and after it was finished, some containers unfortunately caught on fire. 
  • Mislabeled combustible cargo: This is the most common cause of fire in container ships. More often than not, hazardous cargo is also flammable. But people label them incorrectly in order to save shipping costs. But unfortunately, it also comes at the expense of the shipping crew’s safety. 

Why should we care about container ship fires? 

The most obvious reason to care about shipping container fires is that fires are a threat to the supply chain. Fire can cause widespread damages that go beyond the containers that were actually caught in the fire. Smoke and heat from fires can also cause physical damage to surrounding containers, and containers may also sustain water damage from the crew trying to put out the fire. Furthermore, there may be power cuts for any cargo that needs refrigeration. And companies will need to put in extra money to salvage their damaged cargo. 

Shipping container fires also cause a lot of delays for shipping. It usually takes a very long time for container fires to be put out, as it is incredibly difficult for them to receive help when the ships are out at sea. 

The recovery from a fire in container ships is also a long and costly process. Vessels may need several weeks, or even months, to fully recover. Cargo will, in turn, be unavailable for the same amount of time, causing out-of-stock issues and further delays down the supply chain. It can be costly for companies to pay extra for other means of shipping their goods, like air freight, or they can choose to sit around and wait. 

What can shippers do to prepare for shipping container fires? 

  • Research and plan: Research all potential carrier companies and freight forwarders who do not have a history of fires, or have a history of being able to work through problems efficiently. 
  • Buy cargo insurance: All shipping carriers should offer minimum insurance rates, but it is often worth going the extra mile to purchase higher insurance. That way, at least you will be financially compensated in case of any damages. 
  • Use real-time tracking: Use tools like real-time tracking to keep track of where your shipments are. Oftentimes, real-time tracking will also show the status of your cargo, so if anything unexpected happens, like a shipping container fire, you will be notified immediately and be able to plan accordingly. 

Choose to work with GoFreight! 

We offer real-time tracking! GoFreight has an EDI-integrated, real-time tracking system that supports ocean, air, and rail freight. It synchronizes the ETA/ETD of cargo through GPS and AIS systems to provide real-time tracking data. The system also shows users incoming deadlines and tasks through automatic updates. 

Contact us to learn more about how modern freight forwarders take advantage of real-time data. Our customer service team can answer any questions you have. 

Get the latest from GoFreight!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Keep Reading

News, stories and ideas from GoFreight.