THE maintenance of Red Funnel's fire extinguishing system has been branded inadequate following a potentially fatal incident onboard a car ferry.

Leaking cylinder valves have been blamed for the incident on the Red Eagle, when carbon dioxide gas was accidentally released during a crossing from the Isle of Wight to Southampton.

Shortly after the 4.20am sailing left East Cowes, on July 17 last year, the CO2 release alarm sounded in the engine room.

The chief engineer checked the CO2 room and heard a loud hissing sound inside. Opening the door slightly, he could see a dense white cloud of gas.

The crew agreed no emergency response was necessary, other than to ensure no-one entered the CO2 or the engine room, and the car ferry was taken out of service until the system could be inspected.

Of the system's 26 CO2 cylinders, it transpired all but the two master cylinders had either fully or partially discharged due to one or more leaking valves.

The Red Eagle remained out of service until July 21 while all the valves were replaced.

Following an investigation, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) found significant deficiencies in the inspection and maintenance of the fire extinguishing system — by service suppliers, not by Red Funnel itself.

The valves had been refurbished, despite the manufacturer's instructions to the contrary, which led to brass particles becoming trapped on the seal of one valve, causing it to leak.

The MAIB's investigation report, published today (Wednesday), concluded it was lucky no-one was hurt.

It said: "The concentration of CO2 required to extinguish a fire is more than double that required to kill a human being within a minute. Any accidental release of CO2 can, and often does, have fatal consequences.

"Fortunately, no one was harmed in this incident. However, the unintended release of CO2 from fire extinguishing systems has caused 72 deaths and 145 injuries, mainly in the marine industry, between 1975 and 2000.

"Given the potentially fatal consequences of unintentional discharge of CO2, the current 'fit it and forget it' approach to cylinder valves is unsafe. Regular inspection and maintenance in line with the manufacturer's instructions of of paramount importance in ensuring the safety of these systems."

The MAIB also found guidance on the maintenance and inspection of CO2 fire extinguishing systems was insufficient, and called for it to be improved.

Red Funnel was recommended to review the design of CO2 fire extinguishing systems fitted to its vessels, where the leakage of a single cylinder valve causes the entire system to discharge.

UPDATED 13:21: A spokesperson for Red Funnel said: “Red Funnel welcomes this MAIB report and supports its conclusions and recommendations. 

"As a precaution, all CO2 cylinder valves on Red Funnel’s Raptor class fleet were replaced following the incident in July 2017 and a more frequent inspection and servicing regime was introduced using specialist suppliers.”