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Emergency Situations on Board Merchant Ships

Updated on April 16, 2022
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Merchant Navy Engineering Officer on passengers ship since 2008

To prevent the emergency situations to transform into accidents with several damages maritime regulations provide guidance for the effective treatment of the situation by acting on the three parts: human, technological, and organizational.

The International Maritime Organization addresses emergency situations through its regulations. The STCW Convention and the ISM Code in the form of exercises and training for the crew members, as well as developing a safety management system commonly known as SMS (Safety Management System) contain specific emergency manuals and procedures for each case.

Emergency Situations on Board Ships

According to the ISM Code (Chapter IX of the SOLAS Convention), common emergency situations, for all types of ships, could be described as follows:

  • Propulsion System Loss: Defined by any emergency failure resulting in the loss of the vessel propulsion. It is related to the main engine, propulsion turbine, boiler, shaft line, propeller, and any critical auxiliary machine.
  • Electric Energy Loss: Commonly called 'Black-Out', resulting in the shutdown of the main electricity production provided by the generators and all the electrical installation equipment leading to the electrical power distribution. However, an emergency power source (Emergency Generator or Accumulator Battery) would ensure the work continuity of the emergency services temporarily.

  • Loss of the Steering Gear: Defined by the loss or inability to steer the vessel to the desired direction. The steering gear consists of a hydraulic system and a rudder by which the ship could be maneuvered. The regulation provides a rescue plan, however, this later system is only a palliative to reach the nearest port.
  • Collision: When two moving ships collide or come into contact with a shock in a broad sense it is called a collision. This latter may extend to harbor structures or any floating object likely to damage the hull of the ship.
  • Grounding: Defined by the following incident " the vessel touches the bottom unintentionally on a sandy bottom, shores, or rocks.". The event results in the loss of the maneuvering and propelling ability.
  • Fire: Interpreted by the finding of a destructive violent fire on any part of the ship: deck, machine, accommodations, or cargo likely causes serious damage to the structure of the ship or its cargo and persons on board.

  • Ship Abandonment: Defined by the voluntary action to leave the ship and evacuate all persons on board following an imminent danger.
  • Medical Assistance: This situation requires external medical assistance leading to the evacuation of a wounded or seriously ill by helicopter or a service ship.
  • Pollution: Any spill or accidental release of pollutant substance or other substances harmful to the sea as defined by the MARPOL Convention.
  • The Waterway: It is an unexpected or accidental entry of water followed by an opening or loss of integrity of the ship hull below the waterline.
  • The man at the Sea: A situation caused by the falling of a crewmember or passenger overboard into the water, forcing the vessel to perform the Williamson Turn or Boutakov maneuver and to deploy the means of adequate rescue.

  • Loss of Mooring or Bilge Docks: It refers to any failure resulting in the loss of the function of the mooring system (windlass, chain, and anchor) or panels to control the bilge valves for the dewatering operation causes an emergency situation.
  • Other Emergency Situations: Depending on the type of ship, there may be other emergencies specific to the operations or construction of the ship.

Example: Shifting of cargo and lodging, damaged discharge valve on an LNG carrier, or radioactive emanations on a nuclear ship.

Evolution of the Emergency Situation

Due to the occurrence of the emergency situation, the emergency plan is triggered on the operational side. Chronological sequences of events continue according to the logic of the procedures applied. In the end, if the staff on board well manages the situation and eliminates the potential danger, in this case, we avoid the accident and the event is classified as a near-accident (reference should be made to IMO Circular MSC 1015 of 2001 concerning the notification of near misses). In the opposite case and for lack of one of the following elements: means, competence, experience, organization, or preparation, the danger is imminent and the situation leads to an accident. The opening of a safety investigation is mandatory in accordance to the IMO Investigation Code.

Risk Coping Groups on the Ship

In accordance with ISM, the shipping company operating the ship must take all possible means to ensure that the shipboard management is able to handle all known risks at any time on all ships of the company. The crew on board has roles and responsibilities to manage various emergency situations. This is well defined in an SMS of the company and a published document called the emergency plan.

In case of an emergency, the crew members gather to make sure that all the personnel is present and to obtain the necessary equipment for the fire fighting. The meeting zone must be isolated from the adjacent ship parts with fireproof materials and contains the following elements:

  • Fire detection panel;
  • Remote control panel;
  • Safety equipment panel;
  • Assembly list and Checklist;
  • Breathing apparatus;
  • Fire protection equipment;
  • Portable Radio, Batteries, and Charger;
  • Rechargeable safety lights with additional batteries;
  • Saving line with a belt;
  • International Beach Link;
  • Additional fire hoses;
  • In some ships, the center contains foam tanks.

The Contingency Plan

According to the ISM's Emergency Preparedness requirements, the shipping company that operates the ship must prepare a contingency plan for each vessel approved by the Flag State Maritime Administration. Planning and preparing for emergency response is the best solution to deal with various emergencies which leads to speedy action and decision-making.

Emergency plans are used to respond to emergency situations only and not to critical or unexpected situations. It is used in the following cases:

1. The emergency has already occurred;

2. The ship or individuals or the environment are in imminent danger;

3. In the case of failure of preventive measures or could not be used;

The main objective of the emergency plan is to preserve life, ship and cargo, protect the marine environment. It needs a quick and appropriate reaction to overcome the emergency situation. Each crew member must be trained on this plan in order to know his or her duty and responsibility.

This plan must be posted and made available to the crew members. It contains the role of the crews and the distribution of tasks in the main critical situations: abandonment, fire, oil pollution, waterway, and emergency medical assistance. There are also regrouping areas in the case of ship evacuation.

The Emergency Procedures Manual

As part of the onboard safety management in accordance with the ISM Code, the shipowner shall include the ship-specific emergency procedures manual in the onboard safety management system (SMS). This manual describes the emergency situations that may occur onboard ships as well as the procedures and roles defined to remedy or eliminate the hazard. Simulation/training exercises are required by the regulations to train crews in such situations to expand their knowledge and increase their effectiveness in real situations. Four (04) training exercises are required and mandatory by SOLAS Convention as follows:

• One fire exercise per month;

• One abandon ship exercise per month;

• One emergency steering device maneuvering exercise per month;

• One exercise per month of access to a confined space (ballast, empty spaces, cofferdams, crates, forward or backward peak.).

© 2018 Freedom of the sea


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