River Embley Bulker Fire: Maintenance and Automation But Crew Get Fire-Fighting Thumbs-Up

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Jan 252011

Nobody could remember testing the fire alarm/shut-off

Australia’s Transport Safety Board, ATSB, gives the master and crew of the buk carrier River Embley a pat on the back on it’s investigation report of an engine room fire but also brings up issues of maintenance manuals, fatigue and automation.

Says the ATSB: “… the crew’s response was well organised, controlled and coordinated. They understood their roles and responsibilities, worked as a team and appropriately considered the evidence at hand when planning their response. .. Together, the master and crew demonstrated how effective a trained response to an unexpected emergency can be”

The fire followed an explosion in the vessel’s number three compressor due to overheating. The machine’s automatic high temperature alarn and shutoff was not working and probably had not been for some considerable time. Says ATSB: “Had the device operated correctly, the fire and explosion would not have occurred. ”

None of the engineers aboard could recall maintenance being carried out. The system was not part of regular shipboard maintenanc procedures nor was regular testing covered in the manufacture’s manual.

Action has been taken to correct these shortcomings.

The report notes that the duty engineer had started the compressor, which had previsiously be running wihout trouble, using remote start button in the engine room and went to bed. Within an hour the fire started. The second engineer, who was probably fatigued, did not check the compressor when he came on duty.

Says ATSB: “Traditionally, watch keeping engineers were trained to check machines, like air compressors, before starting them; and then confirm that the machine’s operating parameters had settled to their normal state after the machine had been running for a short period of time. However, today, this good engineering practice is often being disregarded. Many items of machinery are started and stopped automatically and engineers often start machines remotely without checking them once they are running.

Engineers have, over time, become more and more reliant on automation. However, while automated shutdowns and alarms can react to changes in system parameters, they are not as effective as a human in predicting future problems based on early diagnosis. Well trained engineers can use all their senses to determine if something is wrong or if a system parameter is different to normal before it reaches a critical ‘shutdown’ stage.”

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