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Ship fire restarts debate

PUBLISHED: 21:00 05 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

AS firefighters fought a massive blaze on board a ship in the English Channel, the big question remained today – what if the vessel had been off Suffolk?

Campaigners – including The Evening Star – battling for the return of the county's firefighting at sea team said the incident on the 29,000 tonne Oriental Highway was a perfect example of why cover was so desperately needed.

AS firefighters fought a massive blaze on board a ship in the English Channel, the big question remained today – what if the vessel had been off Suffolk?

Campaigners – including The Evening Star – battling for the return of the county's firefighting at sea team said the incident on the 29,000 tonne Oriental Highway was a perfect example of why cover was so desperately needed.

With thousands of ships visiting Felixstowe and Harwich ports every year it was only a matter of time before a similar disaster happened here.

Felixstowe mayor Malcolm Minns said it was "almost unbelievable" that firefighters would have to fly from 100 miles away in Lincolnshire to tackle a blaze on a cargo ferry en route for Britain's biggest container terminal.

"With ships getting more in number and larger in size, we should be even more concerned," said Mr Minns.

"This incident in the Channel is an example of what can happen and what might happen here in the dense and narrow shipping lanes off the Felixstowe coast.

"There must be a greater risk of such an incident happening here than almost anywhere else in the country simply because of the amount of shipping."

He demanded to know how a blaze like yesterday's would have been tackled and said the town council would ask such questions at a meeting soon with the district emergency planning officer.

Andrew Linington, of ships' officers union NUMAST, said: "This fire illustrates why Britain must have a complete system of maritime firefighting cover.

"On a car carrier or a ro-ro ship fire would spread intensely and rapidly because the car decks are wide open spaces.

"It becomes more crucial every day that we resolve this issue – especially for areas such as the North Sea off Suffolk – as rapidly as possible. There is a lot of work going on at present and we are quite positive something will be done."

The Oriental Highway was off the coast of East Sussex, when fire broke out. Its 21-strong crew started tackling the flames as a nine-strong maritime team from East Sussex Fire Brigade was air-lifted aboard by coastguard helicopter.

Later a back-up team from Hampshire was sent to the Liberian-registered vessel – carrying 484 cars from Germany to Portugal – along with two lifeboats. Together managed to prevent the fire from spreading to other parts of the ship.

The Evening Star launched its campaign after Suffolk's squad was axed to save just £9,000 a year.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has since pledged to ensure the UK has firefighting capacity around its entire coastline to deal with the country's woeful inadequacy to deal with a major ship fire – but it will be two years before the new system in is place.


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