Kent left to pick up the pieces

IF there is a major blaze on board a container ship or passenger ferry off the coast of Suffolk in future, it is likely to be tackled by firefighters from Kent.

By Richard Cornwell

IF there is a major blaze on board a container ship or passenger ferry off the coast of Suffolk in future, it is likely to be tackled by firefighters from Kent.

With the axing of the county's specialist unit, it will mean a helicopter from Wattisham, the Solent area or even Belgium, will collect a crew from Manston airport to airlift and drop them onto the stricken ship in the North Sea.

Inevitably, it will mean minutes lost in reaching the blaze – vital minutes if it is a passenger ship with hundreds on board, anxiously waiting to be rescued.

And such a situation is increasingly likely.

In the past decade there have been 340 fires on ships in British waters – 71 of them on passenger ships and 27 on tankers.

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The Kent Fire Brigade has no fire launch for fighting fires at sea, and at the moment often relies on air crews from Wattisham to take them to incidents in the English Channel.

The service does have inshore launches for dealing with fires in the Thames and Medway estuaries, but these are not seaworthy craft.

Fires on ferries can take place up to 25 miles off the coast and demand the fastest response possible.

"Even if we did have a fire launch it would not be much use in many of these incidents – and would not reach the scene as fast a helicopter could," said Chris Nelson, a former member of Kent's specialist fire fighting at sea team.

Mr Nelson, now a member of the brigade's media bureau, said the service had firefighters specially trained to fight fires at sea and these were tested in special regular joint exercises with the Sussex brigade.

Joint training was also held with staff of the major shipping lines using the Channel, including P&O, Stena and Sea France.

"Under the rules and regulations today, modern ferries have very, very good detection and suppression systems to tackle fires. Certain staff also have specialist training to tackle any incident," said Mr Nelson.

"The firefighting equipment is on board and they know exactly how to use it and we help train them."

The on-board capability to deal with fires – both the ship's crew and the vessel's own systems – is these days first rate.

Most fires which start on board happen in the engine room and a ship will automatically seal this and set off high-powered sprinklers to extinguish it. The superstructure is designed so that the blaze cannot spread – and to give ample time for a full evacuation, if needed.

There will remain concern in the industry though over whether all ships visiting British ports and sailing in our waters meet the same standards.

NUMAST says it receives an increasing number of reports of poor standards from ships registered under "flags of convenience", those of tiny nations which do not comply with or enforce the rules.

In Kent, the brigade also deals with fires at the Port of Dover and in its harbour.

Felixstowe port – Britain's busiest container terminal – has its own fire service, which deals with many incidents at the 700-acre complex but is supported by Suffolk Fire Service at major incidents.

The port's fire crews would also be first response for any fire in a ship berthed or in the harbour, with support from tugs with high-powered water hoses.