$3m oil tanker fire caused by exploding radio battery

We have all heard that lithium-ion batteries can be a fire risk, yet tankers are reliant on them. What can be done? Perhaps not charge them unsupervised? A report from the US National Transportation Safety Board about a tanker fire provided some insights and advice

A 2022 fire on a tanker “S-Trust” docked in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was caused by an exploding lithium-ion battery for a handheld radio, a US National Transportation Safety Board investigation found. The fire resulted in $3 million in damage.

The fire occurred on the ship’s bridge, which was unoccupied at the time. The vessel’s crew extinguished the fire, but the vessel’s navigation, communication and alarm systems were damaged beyond use. No injuries or structural damage was reported.

“A lithium-ion battery cell can spontaneously experience a thermal runaway if damaged, shorted, overheated, defective or overcharged,” NTSB said. Although it did not find which one of those issues had specifically caused the fire.

Crews can help to prevent thermal runaways and ensuing fires by following manufacturers’ instructions for the care and maintenance of lithium-ion batteries; properly disposing of damaged batteries; avoiding unsupervised charging; and keeping batteries and chargers away from heat sources and flammable materials, it said.

NTSB also recommended that companies should ensure that lithium-ion batteries and devices that use lithium-ion battery packs are certified by Underwriters Laboratory or another recognized organization. The batteries in this case were certified.

Crew can attempt to extinguish lithium-ion battery fires using conventional fire extinguishers, including water, foam, CO2, dry chemical or powdered agents designed for combustible fires.

How events occured

At the time of the fire, the bridge was unmanned, because the vessel was docked, the master was working in his office, and the crew were working in the cargo control room managing cargo offloading.

The master was alerted to the fire because he had a monitor of a CCTV camera in the bridge, and at 1530 saw that the camera feed was no longer visible. When he went to the bridge to investigate, smoke came out of the door and activated a smoke detector at the top of the stairwell just outside the door.

The master quickly closed the door, went down to the cargo control room, and told the chief mate to stop all cargo operations. After doing so, the chief mate notified the terminal of the fire on the vessel. Terminal personnel then contacted the West Baton Rouge Fire Department. The master returned to the bridge deck to fight the fire. On the way, he used a radio to notify the other crewmembers of the fire.

After arriving on the starboard bridge wing, the master opened the starboard-side door to the bridge to evaluate the situation. He stated that the fire was coming from the communications table. He then proceeded to the port bridge wing and opened the portside door to the bridge, but the smoke was too thick to see into the bridge.

He returned to the starboard bridgewing. The master directed the crew to muster into two fire teams. One on the portside bridgewing and the other on the starboard-side bridgewing.
Once the master received notification that all of the electrical power to the bridge was secured, the fire teams began fighting the fire through the port and starboard bridge doors using hoses. At 1550, the fire was reported to be out.

CCTV recording

The CCTV recording showed an orange flash immediately followed by a puff of smoke by the communications table at 1527. Following the initial flash, the video showed smoke rising and increasing in volume and thickness.

At 1529, the footage showed another orange flash in the same area as the first one, followed by an object on fire, which flew from the area of the flash to the starboard side of the bridge, where it landed on the deck in front of the lifejacket locker and continued to burn.

In the video, the fire on the communications table continued to grow. The visibility on the bridge decreased rapidly, and the camera lens became covered in ash and started to deform at 1536, preventing any further view of the fire within the bridge.

Radios and batteries onboard


The vessel carried 20 UHF handheld radios to be used during vessel operations, fifteen by Motorola and five by Entel.

The vessel carried twenty-seven 7.4-volt batteries for the radios. Fourteen of the batteries had lithium-ion cells, and thirteen of the batteries had nickel metal hydride cells.

The vessel had sixteen battery chargers: eight for lithium-ion batteries and eight for nickel metal hydride batteries. Six of the lithium-ion chargers were Motorola chargers and two were Entel chargers.

The chargers were located throughout the vessel, including the bridge, the engine room, the pump control room, and the officers’ cabins.

While the radios, batteries, cells, and chargers were manufactured in different countries, they were all certified by Underwriters Laboratories.




Was the battery charging?


The report did not draw complete conclusions about whether the batteries had been charging at the time of the fire.

A crewmember informed investigators he believed that the batteries for those radios were not charging the day of the fire.

However, investigators did find the remains of a lithium-ion battery charger and a nickel­metal hydride battery charger around the communications table, where the fire had begun.

They found the remains of a nickel-metal hydride battery around the charger remains, and the remains of two lithium-ion batteries.

All six of the individual cells within the nickel-metal hydride battery were found and exhibited fire damage.

For the lithium-ion batteries, for one battery which contained two individual cells, both cells were found. For the other lithium-ion battery found among the charger remains, neither of the cells were found. So, it is possible that these calls were the ones which had exploded.




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