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Firefighting for voyagers

Aug 28, 2012

Preparation and practice are essential elements for fighting a fire on board

Boat fires can quickly get out of hand.

Boat fires can quickly get out of hand.

Few things are more frightening than an uncontrolled fire on board: the potential for total loss is extremely high. Unfortunately, fire is a not uncommon occurrence on boats of all sizes: witness the recent cases of cruise ships disabled due to fire. The U.S. Coast Guard cites fire as one of the top 10 casualty events on uninspected passenger vessels. Statistics from the International Maritime Organization indicate fire as the cause of total loss in about 15 percent of the cases involving small (40- to 80-foot) fishing vessels.

With such a compelling threat then, why do many sailors buy the requisite two fire extinguishers, stow them in a deep recess somewhere, and hope for the best?

Hope is a terrible risk mitigation strategy.

Jeff Williams

One of three boats destroyed by fire at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron in Brisbane. Fire started on one boat and spread quickly to two more before it could be controlled.


For our purposes, fire is the uncontrolled oxidation of materials through combustion, producing heat, light, and other products.

Three components are necessary for a conventional fire to be sustained: fuel, oxygen, and heat. “Fuel” means whatever is burning: diesel, wood, fiberglass, or this magazine. Oxygen is all around: air is about 20 percent oxygen. Heat may originate from a controlled source — say a running engine — but once out of control, the chemical process of fire produces enough heat to be self-sustaining.

Safety standards
As a starting point for figuring out what firefighting equipment to have on board, we can look at the various standards promulgated by national and international bodies.

In spite of recent proposals regarding higher standards of equipment and training for some vessels (see Professional Mariner, May 2012, p. 44), U.S. regulations for recreational vessels are probably still the most lenient: two or three (depending on vessel length) small fire extinguishers (46 CFR 25). Having a couple fire extinguishers on board somewhere will at least prevent a citation during an inspection boarding and they could be useful in case of a fire, too.

I prefer the safety standards of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), known as the Offshore Racing Congress Special Regulations. These are the standards to which most ocean race competitors must adhere. They have been won over time through the experiences of thousands of racers and so they reflect real-world conditions. These rules are available from the ISAF at www.sailing.org — click on “Documents & Rules” at the bottom on the website, then “Offshore Special Regs.”

Category 1 standards apply to all cruisers:

“(Voyages) of long distance and well offshore, where yachts must be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance.” (§2.01.2)

As to fire safety, these standards also require at least two fire extinguishers “readily accessible in suitable and different parts of the yacht.” (§4.05.1) In addition, a fire blanket is required adjacent to stoves or other cooking devices. (§4.05.4) The stove must have a “safe accessible fuel shutoff” (§3.20.1) and every fuel tank for the engine or generator must have a shutoff valve (§3.28.3).

Courtesy Fireboy/Xintex

A fire suppression system on a commercial vessel. While most recreational boat owners won’t install such robust fire systems, they can adopt the attitude of preparedness found on professional vessels.


Finally, a safety equipment location chart has to be displayed in an obvious place (§4.12).

Canadian standards require an extinguisher at each entrance to cooking, accommodation, and machinery spaces. Additionally they require an ax and two buckets. Australia agrees with the bucket and requires it be fitted with a lanyard.

John Kettlewell

A key element of fire preparedness is to place fire extinguishers in high traffic locations where they can be grabbed quickly.


You are the fire department
The best way to reduce the risk from fire is to prevent any uncontrolled fire from occurring in the first place. And should this strategy fail, training becomes your most important ally.

Maggie Collins in the engineering department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship Okeanos Explorer puts it this way, “The training is valuable and we drill on it every week. We must be trained in it, regardless of what agencies and laws say, because underway we are the fire department.”

Here are three steps that you can take to reduce your fire risk.

First: analyze your specific needs and get the right firefighting equipment.

Consider the likely places for fires to start (galley, machinery spaces) and where you will have to approach them from. At a minimum, have a dry chemical extinguisher mounted in each cabin. Have another dry chemical extinguisher within reach of the galley, assuming that the stove top is on fire. Have a clean agent or CO2 extinguisher close to the engine spaces. Finally, mount an extinguisher somewhere accessible in the cockpit in case fire blocks the companionway.

Jeff Williams

In addition to being a voyager, Jeff Williams works on board NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer and has learned a systematic approach to firefighting.


You may want to consider a dedicated clean agent or CO2 extinguishing system permanently mounted for your engine room or compartment.

Mount portable fire extinguishers with a Coast Guard-approved metal mount. Secure the mount permanently in place.

When locating your extinguishers, keep in mind that 1) for them to be effective, you need to be able to get to an extinguisher even if there’s a fire burning, and 2) never put a fire between you and your exit. At least on boats we usually have a choice of hatches to exit from, but on our J/40 Gryphon, you have to exit the aft cabin past the galley — not ideal if there’s a fire there.

Mount a fire blanket near — but not too near — the stove.

Fire is a serious concern on wooden boats. Working on tall ships, Capt. Dana Mancinelli makes this recommendation: “On ships with propane stoves, we always kept an old coffee can with holes in the lid the size of dimes filled with baking soda within arm’s reach of the burners. It saved the ship twice from cooking related grease fires.”

Keep a bucket with a lanyard attached convenient to the cockpit. Splice the lanyard on — it’s good practice and there’s no doubt it’ll be there when you need it.

Second: make a plan for fire prevention and firefighting on board.

The best strategy for fighting a fire is, of course, to prevent it in the first place. Start with the shutoffs for your propane and fuel systems. These shutoff valves need to be clearly labeled, easily accessed, and maintained regularly. The propane shutoff should be close to — but not impeded by — the galley stove. Fuel shutoffs should not be located inside engine compartments.

An excellent first step in fighting any fire is to remove the fuel source. If you can quickly stop the flow of fuel in Class B fires, you greatly reduce the risk of them spreading.

Inspect your propane and fuel lines looking for any signs of deterioration and/or chafing. Maintain hoses and fittings against salt corrosion.

Practice good housekeeping on board: keep flammables like gasoline, varnish, and thinners in a ventilated locker space and properly sealed. Do not keep oily rags on board. Mancinelli witnessed a shoreside paint locker explode as a result of rags and open containers. “Good housekeeping is important. If that had been kept on ship, it probably wouldn’t have been a good day.”

Inspect your machinery (engines, generators) for oil leaks. Oil hitting hot spots on engines account for over 60 percent of all engine room fires according to Det Norske Veritas, the Norwegian maritime safety organization. Resolve any leaks and remove any oil-soaked absorbents from the engine spaces.

Engine spaces are especially challenging for fire safety because they are typically visually isolated — you can’t see into them without opening an access door. If a fire is present, opening a door provides the fire with a sudden excess of oxygen. A fire can erupt uncontrollably or flashback through the opened access. Consider adding a view port and/or a fire extinguisher access port to your engine space.

Inspect your onboard wiring for loose terminals, dead-end wires, and wire insulation chafe. The Coast Guard cites dead-end wires as one of the top deficiencies for small passenger vessels. Inspect all junction boxes, splices and connectors, and make sure all appropriate electrical equipment covers are secured.

Make sure you have a definitive control for turning off electrical power. The first step in fighting a Class C fire is to turn it into a Class A fire by de-energizing electrical power.


If a fire does occur, early detection is important; an onboard fire spreads quickly. Navy models show exponential fire growth during the first three minutes. Smoke detectors should be a basic requirement on board. All the usual warnings about smoke as a killer apply on board.

Draw a safety equipment location chart for your boat. With regard to fire safety, this diagram should show the location of fire extinguishers, propane and fuel shutoffs, electrical shutoffs, and other fire-related safety items. Keep the chart prominently displayed and brief new crew on safety equipment locations.

Make a plan for what each crewmember should do during a fire. Consider the effects of wind-blown smoke and likely sources of fire with regard to the location of survival equipment (life raft, grab bag, EPIRB, etc.) and assembly points.

Third: practice your plan and get familiar with your firefighting equipment.

Practice using your fire safety equipment. Faced with a spreading fire is no time to read the instruction manual. Most ships have fire safety drills weekly. You may not need this regimen, but familiarity with equipment is important and should be practiced regularly.

Know your fire extinguishers. Handle each and understand how it works. Know how to pull the pin and squeeze the release handle. The correct way to use a fire extinguisher is to aim at the base of the fire and sweep the extinguisher back and forth.

Practice with an old sodium bicarbonate-filled extinguisher — the baking soda is harmless. Do it outside in an open area or make it part of an at-sea safety exercise. You may be surprised how quickly an extinguisher is emptied.

Inspect your fire equipment monthly — check extinguishers for proper pressure and test shutoff valves to be sure they operate smoothly.

If you do have to fight an onboard fire, remember these fundamentals:

• Remove the source of fuel — shut off fuel and/or propane flow in Class B fires.
• De-energize electrical sources in Class C fires.
• Shut off engines, generators, and ventilators before releasing extinguishing agents — a running engine continually brings fresh air into the machinery space, diluting the extinguishing agent.
• Clean agents need a certain concentration to be effective — seal small spaces when using.
• Smother galley fires with a fire blanket or baking soda — do not spray burning cooking oils with a high-pressure stream from an extinguisher.
• After a fire is out, material may still be smoldering — watch for flare up especially when opening closed spaces — have another extinguisher or ample water at hand.

You may never need to fight a fire but, like all onboard safety items, familiarity and practice are key to a successful outcome of their application.

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Jeff Williams trained as a firefighter in Utah in 1980 and holds a 100-ton masters license. He and his wife Raine have completed a circumnavigation and now live in New Zealand.

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