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Fire On Board!

Boat Fires Can Quickly Get Out Of Hand. Put Passenger Safety First.
Boating Safety

Fire is an infrequent but terrifying occurrence on board a boat.  Because of the environment and potential distances involved, firefighting assistance may take awhile to arrive on the scene.  Plus, unlike fires on shore, there may be no place to evacuate except into the water. It’s important to make every effort to prevent fires, to have the equipment on board to extinguish fires, and to know what quick action to take should one occur, including having a plan in place should you and your passengers need to abandon ship. 

Some 260 fires aboard recreational vessels were reported in 2009, the latest data available, with more than half caused by the ignition of spilled fuel or fuel vapors.  Such fires can be catastrophic – often explosions rather than fires - and frequently result in the complete loss of the vessel.  As a consequence, although deaths and injuries from fires remain relatively low – just 130 injuries and five fatalities in 2009 – the property loss can be staggering, more than $12.5 million that same year.

Besides fuel fires, recreational boats can also fall victim to the same types and causes of fire you’d find ashore.  Overall, here are five to watch out for:

•    Overheated grease in the galley
•    Overloaded or poorly wired electrical systems and appliances
•    Overheated engines/propulsion systems
•    Rags in contact with the turbocharger or exhaust system
•    Leaking fuel or gas lines, or poor refueling technique

What to do if you experience a fire?  First, be sure that everyone on board is aware of the fire.  Get everyone into their life jackets and prepare to abandon ship, if necessary. Make an emergency call to the Coast Guard over Marine Channel 16, and be prepared to give your position and the number of people on board – you may only get one chance. If you’re the only person aboard and a life raft is available, put it over the side and keep a knife handy should you have to cut it loose from the boat. Do not hesitate. Fires aboard a vessel can get out of control very quickly.

Try to determine the source of the fire; you may need to secure the electricity or close off fuel lines before attempting to extinguish the fire.  If you have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved fire extinguisher on board, follow the directions and safety precautions listed on the label. Hold the extinguisher upright and pull the pin. A typical small marine fire extinguisher has a discharge time of only about 8 to 20 seconds, so don’t waste it. Stand 10 to 15 feet away from the fire and squeeze the handle, aiming at the base of the fire not the smoke.

Once the fire is out, vent and clear the compartment of smoke.  Assign someone to watch and ensure that the fire doesn’t reignite, and make sure they have the tools to fight it further if it becomes necessary.  You want the fire area cold and black.  If you used water to extinguish the fire, you may need to begin dewatering to avoid impairing the boat’s stability.

It’s hard to prepare for fighting a fire on board a recreational boat, but a good safety measure is to consider the three most likely areas for fires – galley, electrical panel and engine compartment – and then think through the different scenarios and how to best respond.  You may want to install a marine fire suppression system in the engine compartment since this is an area where a fire may not be detected until it’s seriously out of control. 

The federal carriage requirements for fire extinguishers can be a little confusing.  The regulations state that a motorboat less than 26 feet in length, propelled by outboard motors and not carrying passengers for hire, need not carry fire extinguishers if the construction will not permit the entrapment of flammable gases or vapors.  So, you are asking yourself, what does that mean?  Any vessel with any of the following conditions will be require to carry fire extinguishers regardless of length:

•    Closed compartments under thwarts and seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored
•    Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material
•    Closed living spaces
•    Closed stowage compartments in which combustible or flammable materials are stowed.
•    Permanently installed fuel tanks

This doesn’t include bait wells, glove compartments boats with open slatted flooring. So how many fire extinguishers do you need? The following table will help you determine the minimum number of B-I fire extinguishers you need:

Length of Vessel (feet)
  NO fixed fire extinguishing system in the machinery space   Fixed fire extinguishing system in the machinery space

Under 16

1 0
Over 16, under 26
1 0
Over 26, under 40
2 1
Over 40, not over 65
3 2

To meet the acceptability requirements fire extinguishers must meet the following:

•    Must be Marine type
•    Must be U.S. Coast Guard approved
•    Must be the correct type
•    Must be in good and serviceable condition
•    Must have a sufficient charge
•    Must have correct number for type and size of vessel

Fire extinguishers should be serviced and recharged or replaced annually or when the indicator shows only a partial charge remains.

Preventing a fire is always preferable to fighting a fire.  Keep the bilge and engine area clean. Make sure that all wiring and electrical systems have been properly installed. And use proper refueling technique: extinguish any cigarettes or lighted materials, be sure to keep the hose nozzle in contact with the fill pipe to prevent a spark from static electricity and a possible explosion, and keep a fire extinguisher close at hand. Since fuel vapors are heavier than air, make sure all compartments are well ventilated before starting the engine. If so equipped, run the boat’s blower for at least four minutes after refueling, then give all compartments the “sniff” test before starting the engine.

Martin Bauman (not verified)
Jun 6, 2012

Good summary

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