Electric Vehicles (EV) and Maritime Transportation – Fire Hazards Identified

Fire onboard a ship can be catastrophic.  Many types of fires have standard firefighting procedures, but innovative installations onboard or different cargoes lead to new risks.  One of those emerging risks is in the carriage of electric vehicles (EV) onboard ro-ro vessels in particular.

As far back as 2013, the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development had commissioned a study to determine if the carriage of electric vehicles on ro-pax or ro-ro vessels increased the risk of fire onboard.  The conclusion was that the carriage of electrically powered vehicles (BEV and HEV) results in an increased risk of fire.  The study additionally addressed fire protection and firefighting procedures including a discussion of additional firefighting measures onboard ro-pax and ro-ro vessels.

“In the event of a lithium ion battery catching fire, it is important to note that such a fire reaches very high temperatures, produces toxic gases and is inextinguishable.”

The recommendations from the German BMVBS included :

  • BEV/HEV and FC vehicles should be transported in special areas (equipped with appropriate detectors, fire-extinguishing equipment and fire-extinguishing agents). In the case of a fire, possibly separation of such vehicles by means of a water wall or mobile partitions (roller blinds).
  • The awareness of fire-fighting teams should be raised with regard to the dangers arising from BEV/HEV and FC vehicles and their training should be extended accordingly.

In 2016, DNV-GL released a report addressing fires on ro-ro cargo decks.  It was not focused on electric vehicles and addressed all factors regarding ro-ro cargo fires in eighteen incidents.  The recommendations included :

  • Quick release of the fixed fire-extinguishing system is important, in particular for open Ro-Ro decks where the window of opportunity may be less than 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Shift of cargo represents a risk. At least for cargo Ro-Ro and vehicle carriers, improved cargo securing and weather routing should be considered.
  • A policy on how to handle alternative-fuel vehicles should be developed, if applicable (know-how on correct firefighting strategy/challenges), although this is not identified as a major risk (it is an unknown risk).

DNV-GL’s identification of “shift of cargo represents a risk” is particularly pertinent to the carriage of electric vehicles.  The diagram below from the Journal of The Electrochemical Society looks at four conditions that can lead to lithium ion battery (LIB) thermal runaway – one of which is mechanical abuse.  In other words, simply having lashings fail in a seaway with a cargo of EV shifting could lead to a thermal runaway and ensuing fire.

Courtesy of Journal of The Electrochemical Society – Review—Meta-Review of Fire Safety of Lithium-Ion Batteries: Industry Challenges and Research Contributions (2020)

As EV become more common, they are increasingly being carried by ocean transportation.  While not specifically implicated in a number of recent ro-ro fires, the hazards of batteries in general have been identified by the U.S. Coast Guard in Marine Safety Alert 06-20 Recognizing Fire Hazards & Proper Cargo Stowage on RO-RO Vessels and various protection and indemnity organizations including the Britannia and UK P&I clubs.

The source of the USCG MSA and the P&I club articles are mainly accident reports from fires that have occurred.  Much like the DNV-GL report of 2016, recent accident reports are used to gain insights as to how similar incidents might be prevented.  Unfortunately, access to these reports is not a guarantee as it is at the discretion of the flag state investigating.  As noted in the main picture above, the accident report for Sincerity Ace was submitted to IMO a year ago, yet is not publicly available from the flag state – Panama.  It has been surmised that this ro-ro cargo fire – along with five fatalities – might be EV-related.

Other information on how EV and LIB fires might be fought can be found by going outside the maritime industry.  The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has produced an Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide that addresses EV emergency response for first responders ashore.  Unfortunately, many of the procedures and recommendations might not be applicable at sea due to stowage and space.

Courtesy of Britannia P&I Club

There is continued interest in EV and LIB fires in transportation.  The U.S. Transportation Research Board has funded a study for 2022 noting, “Lithium-ion battery fire risks are currently undermanaged in transit operations.”  More immediately, the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) will be hosting a presentation by Captain Jim Staples, “Understanding the Risk when Carrying Electric Vehicles on a Vessel,” on February 17th.  Among the topics to be discussed are :

  1. What do we need to know about Electric Vehicles?
  2. How do we train the crew on Electric Vehicles?
  3. What tools are needed?
  4. What class fire is an Electric Vehicle considered?
  5. How well are we prepared for an Electric Vehicle incident?

Let’s be safe out there!

Additional Reading and Links


NTSB – Hoegh Xiamen – Fire-CTL – June 2020

UK P&I – Car carrier fires and the associated risks with Electric Vehicle transportation (2021)

Britannia – Loss-Prevention-Insight – Electric Vehicle Fires (2021)

Maritime Safety Innovation Lab – Electric Vehicle Cargo – Fire Hazards