How Do You Monitor Fire Alarms on Container/Cargo Ships?

By Andrew Erickson

July 9, 2023

Much like on naval ships, fire alarm monitoring (and firefighting itself) on civilian container ships presents a unique set of challenges due to the nature of the environment, the design of the vessels, and the types of cargo carried.

What are the special challenges of detecting and fighting fires on a cargo ship?

Let's look at some of the key limitations and challenges faced in enhancing alarm monitoring and firefighting capabilities on container ships:

  1. Hidden Fires That Get Out of Hand: Cargo ships are massive, and crews are limited. These same factors that have led to the persistence of piracy threats also make fires harder to detect. It's a simple fact that there is too much ship for a small crew to cover on foot.
  2. Inadequate Firefighting Equipment: Current firefighting equipment onboard container ships often falls short in controlling large fires. For instance, the water-based systems typically used can be ineffective against certain types of fires, such as those involving flammable liquids or gases.
  3. Access Difficulties: The stacked arrangement of containers can impede access to the source of a fire, making fire watch and firefighting efforts more difficult. Fires that start inside a container can be particularly challenging to detect and then manage.
  4. Lack of Specialized Training: Crew members may lack the specialized training required to effectively respond to a fire on a container ship. This is particularly concerning given the hazardous materials that are often transported in containers. If even seasoned terrestrial firefighters can struggle in the unique maritime environment, imagine the difficulties for a ship's crew.
  5. External Factors: Factors such as rough weather conditions or remote locations can delay external firefighting interventions - and can shift multiple times during a single day. In such situations, the crew must rely on their own resources and training to manage the situation.
A container ship with a large cargo fire in progress

Your container ship is at risk of fire. You can mitigate that risk with high-quality alarm monitoring and good firefighting techniques and training.

What solutions can improve fire safety on your container ship?

To overcome the challenges listed above, you should consider a variety of solutions. These work as a patchwork of protection to improve both detection of and response to any fire scenario.

  1. Invest in Alarm Monitoring Technology: None of the firefighting solutions matter at all if you can't detect a fire in the first place. The cramped corners of a massive ship allow fires to grow unless you have sensors installed and a proprietary alarm monitoring system to collect the data and present it to you. Proper training on system operation is also important to completing the link between a fire beginning and the crew becoming aware.
  2. Invest in Advanced Firefighting Systems: Firefighting systems that use foam, gas, or dry chemicals can be more effective against certain types of fires. Moreover, automated systems that detect and suppress fires at an early stage can prevent them from spreading.
  3. Regular Training and Drills: Regular firefighting training and drills can ensure that crew members are adequately prepared to respond to a fire. This should include training on how to use firefighting equipment effectively and safely.
  4. Use of Fire-Resistant Containers: Fire-resistant containers can help contain a fire and prevent it from spreading to other containers. If a single container is the limit of your fire damage, you won't have a chain-reaction fire that spreads to any other containers or threatens the ship itself.
  5. Collaboration with External Agencies: Establish strong relationships with maritime rescue coordination centers and firefighting tug operators. This can facilitate timely interventions in case of a fire. This only helps when you're near a port, but that's actually a large fraction of the time for many ships.
  6. Safety Culture: Promote a strong safety culture onboard. This includes adherence to safety protocols, regular maintenance checks, and a clear understanding of emergency procedures.
  7. Improved Container Inspections: Enhanced inspections of containers, especially those carrying hazardous materials, can help identify potential risks and prevent incidents.

By implementing these measures, you can significantly enhance the firefighting capabilities on container ships, ensuring the safety of crew members and the protection of valuable cargo.

The Importance of Fire Alarm Monitoring

The first solution on the list above involves an automated fire alarm monitoring system.

Fire alarm monitoring is designed to detect fires at an early stage, providing time for evacuation and firefighting efforts. On container ships, these systems are critical due to the high risk associated with transporting various types of cargo, including hazardous materials.

Equipment Needed for Alarm Monitoring

The primary components of a fire alarm monitoring system include:

  • (Fire Alarm) Control Panel (FACP): This is the "brain" of the system. It receives signals from detectors and activates alarms.
  • Smoke Detectors: These devices detect smoke particles in the air, indicating a possible fire.
  • Heat Detectors: These sense a rapid rise in temperature or a temperature exceeding a preset limit.
  • Alarm Devices (Notification Devices): This category can include bells, horns, or strobe lights that alert crew members of a fire.
  • Manual Call Points: These allow crew members to manually activate the fire alarm system. These are commonly pull handles or pushbuttons.

Installation of Your Monitoring System

  1. Plan Your Alarm Monitoring System: Before installation, it's important to plan where each component will be installed. This should be based on a risk assessment that identifies potential fire hazards on your specific ship.
  2. Install the Control Panel: The fire alarm control panel (FACP) should be installed in a secure location that is easily accessible.
  3. Install Detectors (Initiating Devices): Smoke and heat detectors should be installed in all enclosed spaces, focusing on areas where a fire is most likely to start.
  4. Install Alarm Notification Appliances: Alarm devices should be installed throughout the ship, ensuring they can be heard or seen from any location.
  5. Install Manual Call Points: These should be installed at exits and entrances to compartments, allowing crew members to activate the alarm if they spot a fire.

Testing Procedures

After installation, the system should be thoroughly tested to ensure it functions correctly. This should involve:

  • Testing all detectors to ensure they correctly send a signal to the control panel.
  • Testing all alarm devices to ensure they are activated when the control panel receives a signal.
  • Testing manual call points to ensure they can activate the system.

Monitoring and Recording Fire Alarms

Once your monitoring system is installed and tested, ongoing monitoring and recording are crucial. The control panel should continuously monitor the status of all detectors and record any activations.

Regular checks and maintenance should be carried out according to manufacturer's specifications and government requirements to ensure the system remains in good working order.

Emergency Fire Response Procedures

In the event of a fire, the alarm system will provide an early warning, allowing the crew to initiate emergency response procedures. These should include:

  • Investigating the cause of the alarm.
  • Fighting the fire, if safe to do so. It's likely that only a fraction of the crew have specialized knowledge for some tasks, but everyone has a role to play in a fire situation.
  • Alerting other crew members and initiating evacuation procedures if necessary.
  • Contacting external firefighting services, if required.

By following this guide, you can ensure your container ship is equipped with a robust fire alarm monitoring system. This significantly enhances safety and reduces the risk of a devastating fire.

Speak to Digitize about your project - whether you need monitoring equipment for yourself or your customer

Do you work on projects involving container ships? The engineers at Digitize have experience designing systems for maritime use and are ready to help you with your fire alarm monitoring requirements.

If you provide service to maritime clients, contact Digitize now to get all the benefits of becoming a distributor.

Call a Digitize engineer now at 1-800-693-0351 or email

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and...Read More