As the government withdraws funding for the Maritime Incident Response Group, Dave Sheppard looks at the possibly devastating outcomes of a major fire at sea.

On September 15 the government announced it would cease the existing arrangements for firefighting at sea that allowed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to immediately call on the skills and expertise of declared fire and rescue services to respond to a fire on a vessel at sea. They would instead rely on a commercial fire assessment capability to aid the transition of a vessel from being 'at sea' to 'alongside'.


What is the Risk?

In its broadest sense, globally 1,288 people were reported killed or missing as a result of 465 fires at sea between 2006/081 and we know that over 95 per cent of the UK's trade and over 23 million people travel on the sea around the UK each year2. We also know that ships are getting bigger, our coastlines busier and seas more congested3 and we have the busiest stretch of water in the world on our doorstep (English Channel).

In 2010 the MCA commissioned a review into their requirements for assisting with incidents involving fire, chemical hazards and industrial accidents4. The review found that the most significant risk was in relation to fires with an average of 35 fires reported each year to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, of which approximately two to three per annum were recognised as benefitting from a response. Of these fires, over 50 per cent involved vessels with over 500 persons at risk. A detailed analysis of the locations revealed that the risk applied to the entire UK coastline.


Worst Case Scenario?

The newest cruise liners carry over 5,000 people and to a firefighter represents a number of significant risks including high rise, basement, hazmats, vulnerable people, means of escape, confined space working, not to mention the challenges of being transported over and working remotely at sea.

The independent review considered the impact of changing factors over the last 15 years, such as ship design and legislation and found that the incident rate of fires at sea remained constant. Additionally, the Lloyds Register/UK P&I Clubs Marine Safety Check (May 2009) revealed that human error was responsible for more fires than equipment failure with 1,288 deficiencies relating to fire safety identified through Port State Control Officer inspections in the UK between 2006-2008. This indicates that activity around protection and prevention has not eliminated the risk so the need for an emergency response remains valid.


The Legal Position

There is no statutory duty on any fire authority to provide a response to a fire at sea. The only duties relate to the Coastguard who are required to initiate and coordinate a response to a vessel in distress. Chief fire officers have been able to assist under the guise of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (s12) which allows a service to use their resources outside their authority's area, although any such commitment is a matter for each fire authority to consider.


Anatomy of a Fire at Sea

Currently there are three sequential phases to managing an emergency response to a fire at sea that will either support the extinguishing of the fire or its containment for a period sufficient to allow the vessel to reach a port of refuge or be evacuated in as controlled a manner as possible:

Phase 1 - Vessel's onboard resources

Dependent on the type of vessel, onboard fire parties have to be capable of containing a fire for between one to four hours.

Phase 2 - Fire and Rescue Service assistance

The Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) is a cadre of strategically located coastal Fire and Rescue Services that are able to sustain a response for between two to 24 hours.

Phase 3 - Commercial Salvor

Commercial salvors to provide assistance to vessels in distress which can include firefighting and would generally expect a salvage plan to be in place within 24 hours.


What Does the Fire and Rescue Service MIRG Bring to the Party?

The MIRG brought in nationally-agreed policies, procedures and training which allowed all of the declared fire and rescue services to be interoperable therefore providing national resilience without unnecessarily burdening all coastal fire authorities. The funding for the equipment, training, administration and operational tasking was provided centrally by the Department for Transport via the MCA. It is this funding that has now been removed and threatens the future of the MIRG and Fire and Rescue Service assistance to vessels on fire at sea.

The MIRG is designed to deploy within one hour of a request and will send an initial response consisting of two teams of six firefighters and 600kg of equipment to assist the Master of a vessel in assessing and containing a fire. The first team will establish the incident command system, boarding control function and carry out an initial assessment which can have one of two outcomes, either the situation is under control or that further resources are needed to contain the incident.


The Next Fire on a Vessel at Sea

With effect from 2300 UTC on December 14, 2011 the state response to a vessel on fire at sea will consist of a joint MCA and commercial salvage company assessment team which will be able to advise on the condition of the vessel whilst at sea to inform a decision about whether the vessel can be brought alongside for shore-based firefighters to deal with. Responsibility for this decision rests ultimately with the Secretary of States Representative (SOSREP) who must be satisfied that such decisions are in the overriding UK public interest. Should the vessel's onboard resources be exhausted or overwhelmed, there will be no further containment of the fire.

This will not only have a significant bearing on the outcome for those on the vessel but also for the fire and rescue service that will receive the vessel alongside and be faced with a far worse scenario than if a containment effort had been maintained throughout the transition.


What Now for the Fire and Rescue Service?

The Chief Fire Officers Association Lead Officer for MIRG and Operations Director for Kent Fire and Rescue Service, Steve Demetriou, said "The Fire and Rescue Service believe that there is a vital role for them within a response to a fire on a vessel at sea. The provision of external assistance to the vessel's onboard resources can only improve the chances of the vessel retaining its integrity so lessening the chances of a mass evacuation and possible environmental damage. In addition, professional firefighters are best placed not only to proactively contain fires but also to carry out assessments that will impartially inform both strategic and tactical decisions as the vessel is brought to a port of refuge." 

However, with central funding withdrawn, the pressure on local authority budgets may not allow the Fire and Rescue Service to sustain this capability. The view that was highlighted by the Transport Select Committee Inquiry into the Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels (ETV) and MIRG reported that 'the operations of MIRG are a matter of national resilience and responsibility to fund them should not be left to the local taxpayer'.


About the Author:

Dave Sheppard is a serving Fire and Rescue Service officer who has been planning for and responding to fires at sea for over 20 years. He is currently seconded into the Maritime and Coastguard Agency with responsibility for the UK's Maritime Incident Response Group.



1 Lloyds Register/UK P&I Club Marine Safety Checklist - May 2009

2 Department for Transport statistics

3 MCA Protecting our Seas and Shores in the 21st century

4 BMT Isis Review.

Posted October 31st, 2011 at 1045 by Andrew. Comment by emailing: