News & Media

Portland stock ship fire 2015 – case study

By: Duncan Russell

Category: Operational Information

  10.41 AM 8 April, 2016

Location: General

Views: 2979

The ‘Learning from incidents’ section of Brigade magazine includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management. Here, the team analyses a 2015 grain silo fire on board a ship.

A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.

If you have any observations or initiatives you would like to submit from your own experiences in emergency management, visit the Observation Sharing Centre:


Port of Portland is a deep-water bulk port between the ports of Melbourne and Adelaide.  The port specialises in bulk commodities, particularly forestry, agricultural and mining products as well as aluminium and fertiliser. It delivers $2.5 billion into the region and the nation each year and it’s Victoria’s largest value export port.  

On 3 November 2015, a fire was reported on a stock transport ship in the port. The fire was in a 700-tonne grain silo within the ship. The grain was to be used to feed the stock for export to Russia. The vessel has a 17,000 cattle transport capacity and, fortunately, there was no stock on board at the time of the fire. There was no risk to the crew of around 50 on board at the time.

Incident overview

At 8.01pm CFA was advised of a potential fire in a stock transport vessel. Portland Fire Brigade responded and was on scene at 8.10pm with full brigade response including two pumpers, two tankers and a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). The call came during a Portland brigade meeting and the crew responded immediately and also received support from Heywood and Warrnambool brigades.

On board the ship CFA crews discovered that the front, starboard side of the fodder storage was on fire and was spreading to the rest of the storage area. The colour of the smoke was a greyish-yellow and being discharged from the vent holes of the vessel, indicating the fire was burning well.

An operations point was established wharf side, and the fire was sectorised into a silo sector and breathing apparatus control. There was a direct attack on the fire and an indirect attack cooling the steel in the deck to prevent spread of the fire through conduction.

The operations point was then moved to the bridge of the vessel so an emergency management team could be formed. This included the ship’s captain and master, Port of Portland duty officer and CFA Incident Controller Operations Officer Gary Harker. This allowed communication to the ship’s crew and firefighting crews and seamless operation.

Firefighting activities included the use of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) and injection of A class foam and water used for area cooling. At 9am the following morning, the fire was still going and temperature probes were used to identify hot spots.

The fire continued to intensify.  It was decided to use medium expansion foam on the surface fire and then fill the silo’s void with high expansion foam to reduce the chances of a dust explosion.

Firefighting efforts concentrated on isolating the fire and then slowly removing the stock feed while continuing to contain any fire or explosion risk.

By 12pm a base level IMT (level 3) was established at the Portland local command facility.

The incident response lasted 13 days and nights and involved several agencies. It was a very complex incident and CFA ensured every step of the process was ticked off and that all agencies involved worked closely to avoid a catastrophe in the port and significant delays to the vessel’s operations.

A real time performance monitoring (RTPM) team was deployed during the fire, and after-action reviews were carried out to learn from this incident and continue to build strong relationships across the agencies involved.

Lessons identified

Training and exercises In early 2015, Glenelg Municipal Emergency Management Committee conducted a Level 3 exercise which focused on a ship fire. This allowed engagement and relationship building within the sector and all port-related industries. In addition,  pre-incident exercises were conducted by Portland Fire Brigade and these benefited the crews dealing with the incident.  Previous experience and discussions also helped the emergency management team to make high-level decisions early on.

Pre-incident opportunities to do training, exercises and collaboration in a marine environment should continue and be expanded, including practical training on ships.  

Pre-incident relationships preparation Although at a local level the relationship between CFA and the port and the relationships within the Glenelg Municipal Emergency Management Committee are solid, it was identified that connections with personnel at national and international levels could be be enhanced through exercising at a significant incident level.

Local knowledge The initial responding personnel had solid knowledge and the skill sets  to combat such an incident at the port. However, it was identified there could be benefits in looking into this further to continue to develop and enhance response to incidents and ensure specialist skill sets can be used appropriately.

Safety The safety of personnel is always paramount and it was in the forefront of everyone’s mind from the beginning of the incident. It was identified there was duplicated effort of health monitoring, though this was an opportunity to finetune the system and processes to ensure two agencies didn’t undertake the same role. This also presents an opportunity for future exercising.

Importance of research Extensive research was undertaken by the IMT to increase the team’s knowledge about similar incidents, particularly with regards to creating an inert environment within the silo. For example, using nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide reduced the risk of static electricity production in a flammable atmosphere and gases that would asphyxiate people working around it. These dangerous activities required long, tedious and methodical processes, and it was a very slow operation mainly because of the safety systems put in place. The research paid off.

Understanding the risks Agencies and individuals involved had an awareness of the dangers of fire on ships and exposure to extreme temperatures in confined spaces. Specialist skills operators were called in, including confined spaces operators, breathing apparatus operators and personnel used to working with heights and ladder platforms. In addition to these operators, any firefighters who worked within three metres of the wharf edge wore a personal flotation device to enhance fireground safety. A CFA marine capability is currently under review and this review will also help develop appropriate resources and training for the risk.

Multi-agency response It was clear from the level of shared responsibility and willingness to be involved, that there were strong relationships between Port of Portland, insurers, the ship owners, ship masters, shipping company, Landmark, Victoria Police, Glenelg Shire Council, Australian Border Force, shipping agency Monson, Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, Australian Maritime Safety Authority and CFA/MFB scientific officers. Although CFA led the incident, the support agencies were excellent.


This fire was a complex, unfamiliar and unique circumstance for several reasons: the marine environment, access and operating on a vessel, feed pellet characteristics, unique equipment, confined space operations, use of inert gases to limit combustion/explosion risk and engaging with multiple agencies and stakeholders. Yet all those involved did an exceptional job managing this incident. As a result, the overall Port of Portland operations were not affected by the fire. Business continued as normal with negligible impact to the port and community.

Last Updated: 08 April 2016