Hindsight Perspectives: Fire at Sea

Monday, December 21 2020

Hindsight Perspectives: Fire at Sea

This December, the Lloyd's Register Foundation remotely hosted three students from the University of Oxford for micro-internships. Over the five-day placements, they used HEC's digital collections to conduct a rapid literature review focusing on one of the Foundation’s big challenge areas - such as safety at sea and safety for a sustainable future. Aside from blogs, the micro-interns have produced social media posts and a short video discussing their research. In this blog, we learn more about Laura Hurford's research on fire at sea.

My name is Laura, I am from London and I am currently in my final year of studying for a History degree at Oxford University. For the last five days I have been undertaking a micro-internship with Lloyd’s Register Foundation alongside two other interns and it has been a very fun, interesting and worthwhile experience. The project we all took part in was part of a bigger initiative to use sources available in the Heritage and Education Centre (HEC) archives to help inform us on the biggest safety challenge areas that Lloyd’s Register Foundation have identified. I have chosen to focus my hindsight project on fire safety on vessels and offshore structures and how this has changed throughout the past.

Fires at sea have taken and continue to take many lives, cause great environmental damage and great cost to companies. However, there has been a significant increase in the understanding of fires and how they can act at sea over time and changes in safety rules and recommendations in response. A greater understanding of the history of fire safety could help us answer questions including what are the most effective ways of implementing fire safety recommendations? What are the different outcomes when different organisations implement a change of guidelines or rules? What types of recommendations have been most effective? Ones surrounding education, materials, technology or other areas? We could also gain wider perspective on how decisions in fire safety are made and what factors have been of influence on its developments. This could also provide an interesting way of studying how Lloyd’s Register’s role in promoting fire-safety at sea has varied over the years in its relationship to international conventions and the role of the IMO. This furthered understanding of fire safety would link into Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s work in their key challenge areas of improving safety at sea, the safety of physical infrastructure, skills for safety and public understanding of risk.

My role has been to explore the collections available in the HEC library for sources that could offer insight into fire safety and what these sources might be able to tell us. As I have been doing this internship remotely, I was using the HEC library online. This was no problem at all for searching for relevant content and for most articles an abstract has been made available online, so I was able to use these to try and gauge an understanding of the contents of each source. However, because the archives are in the process of being digitised and because I did not have access to the archives in person, I was not able to read the majority of sources. For the five-day project of constructing an idea of what sources might be available for this area of research, however, this was not much of a problem as I had the abstracts.

I began my search on the HEC library catalogue by searching the terms “ship fire”. This then brought up 243 results. To try and get an initial understanding of what sorts of sources I would find and what insight they could actually offer I scrolled through the titles, authors, dates and abstracts for the first page of results in the library. I noted down all the documents that seemed to be relevant to fire safety on ships or offshore-structures and also noted down what I think the key themes covered in each respective document seemed to be. Themes included technology, materials, modelling, simulating, policy, international convention, education, training and more. I then used these key themes to narrow down my subsequent searches, for example searching “ship fire materials”. This made it a lot easier reading through more of the results in detail. I then undertook a similar process after searching the terms “offshore fire” which brought up 172 results. In my literature review I have detailed each of these searches I made in the HEC library and the relevant documents I found. My research was not just limited to the HEC library, I also was given access to a database of LR Publication Articles. Here I searched the term “fire” to bring up 22 results which I then scrolled through, read the abstracts and noted down the relevance and key themes of each one. The relevant sources from this database tended to be from 100A1, Lloyd’s Register’s technical publication for staff and clients, which ran from 1959 to 1999 and amongst other things, contained case studies of fires on vessels or offshore.

One area which might be of interest for further exploration that I think the library and archives would support would be in how safety regulations have developed alongside rapidly developing new shipping technologies. For example, searches for “ship fire material” seem to have brought up a few relevant documents about ships using carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP). There are documents ranging in date from the year 1976[1] until the year 2000[2] involving considerations of how fire safety had to be adapted to vessels using alternative materials. What might also be of interest in further study here could be contrasting the role of classification societies such as Lloyd’s Register as presented in the archives, with the role of the IMO and the Safety of Life at Sea convention (SOLAS). As part of my internship I was put in touch with an expert within Lloyd’s Register (LR) on marine fire safety and one role of LR and other classification societies that he stressed to me was their ability to approve designs that might not be covered by the prescriptive requirements of the SOLAS convention. A study of published amendments to the SOLAS convention or IMO recommendations on fire safety with new technologies or materials being used in shipping, compared to published reports or guidelines by classification societies may be an interesting way to look at the different speed of responses to changes in the industry. 

Another interesting area I came across while searching the HEC library and archives through the LR Publication Articles was the use of case studies and examples of particular accidents provoking changes in fire safety rules and regulations. Another expert I was given the opportunity to talk to who specialised in fire safety on off-shore structures gave me an insight into how the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 initiated a large research project into the physics of fires which led to a whole new understanding of the fire loads of hydrocarbon fires. This disaster also later led to a shift in the levels of responsibility oil companies and national authorities chose to take in safety standards, which could maybe be further explored through an analysis of corporate publications and recommendations and conventions. The expert from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation also said it contributed to a growth in the incorporation of risk-assessment and risk-management into engineering education. The history of the development of new programmes of education might be something that the Lloyd’s Register Foundation might be interested in as they have recently been funding FEEFA (Fire Engineering Education for Africa) to run postgraduate courses in fire engineering in Africa[3]. In my literature review I have noted a list of relevant documents I found when searching for “ship fire training” and these sources might be useful for this. If I had more time to complete this project I would spend time searching the archives with the names of incidents of fires at sea and would try look at patterns of updated rules and regulations occurring in the aftermath of incidents. This might be interestingly linked to an exploration of archives that could show public reaction to incidents, perhaps in newspapers, to increase our understanding of public perceptions of risk.

Overall, I have really enjoyed and benefitted from this internship with Lloyd’s Register Foundation. There have been challenges, mostly in my lack of technical understanding due to not having a science or marine background, but I have been able to shape the project in a direction that suits me and have had huge support throughout the five days. Undertaking the project with two other interns was really nice as it meant we could talk our ideas through with each other and I found the projects they were doing very interesting. We had at least three virtual meetings a day with Louise which not only helped give my project direction and cleared up any misunderstandings but also made the experience really enjoyable and made me feel like I was a part of a team despite the internship being remote.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Lloyd’s Register Group or Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

[1] D. Bailey, Fire reinforced plastics and their application in the marine environment, 1976

[2] A. Loennoe, The Visby Class Corvette- the World’s Biggest CFRP-sandwich ship, 2000

[3] Engineering Fire Safety In South Africa, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, 2020, retrieved at:

Hindsight Perspectives