Updated: Jun 22
There is only one effective way that I know of to fight a fire on board a vessel, prevent it from happening in the first place! I have yet to see any ship carry enough equipment or trained personnel to effectively fight a fire on board without help from outside sources. Sure, do all you can to fight it, CO2, water etc but make sure you have ‘Plan B’ ready to go (get off the vessel) and I would highly recommend instigating this sooner than later unless the option of getting off is worse than staying.
I have never been on a vessel that has had a fire on board at sea, but after being a volunteer Fireman in a busy area for about six years on my trips off, I have been to quite a few house fires. There is one enormous difference between a house fire ashore and fire at sea, we could just ‘surround and drown’ the house and walk away. You cannot do this at sea or at least not easily and not without additional danger.
I want to run the following scenario past you all. It is exactly the type of situation we would practice onboard my last major vessel, under supervision from the local fire brigade training team. In this scenario the vessel is a modern catamaran, running on one of the regular commuters running around the harbour (it makes no difference whether it is a charter or cruise). The vessel is well maintained, and adequately manned and as a responsible skipper, you have ensured the new crew have practised fire drills. There are passengers on board, but the vessel is not packed to the rafters with a maximum load it’s just an average day doing the same old thing.
A fire alarm comes up on the dashboard panel indicating a fire in one of the engine rooms and an alarm sounds. Your heart sinks and you immediately shut the engine down and back off the other. You send your deckhands out to immediately shut all the vents to the engine room and make an announcement over the main broadcast. Thick black smoke billows from the exhaust stack and the cabins begin to fill with smoke. Passengers begin to scramble out of the main cabin and clamber out to the top decks and fresh air, trampling over those unable to get out of the way quick enough. You are not sure that all the vents have been shut and rushed aft to hit the emergency fuel cut-offs. Your deckhands find you and you instruct them to begin issuing lifejackets and getting some hoses out. Rushing back to the wheelhouse you start the emergency fire pump, then begin to transmit a distress message while also trying to phone the company and let them know what is happening. Finally, your mate/deckhand reports that all the vents are shut so you go aft again and pull the CO2 extinguisher for that engine room. The passengers are by now all on the top deck, most have life jackets but there is thick smoke billowing through the whole vessel, the radio is screaming at you asking for information, the deckhands are looking for instructions and the heat inside the vessel has now built to the point that going inside to the cabin and wheelhouse area is not possible.
You order the vessel to be abandoned. The time elapsed has been less than ten minutes. Luckily, there are other vessels nearby and they pick up you, your crew, and the passengers in short order, however, it will take another two to three days before the authorities are sure that everyone got off the vessel. In the meantime, you have a grandstand view of how an aluminium vessel burns to the waterline.
Let me be clear about one point at this stage, you, as skipper has done nothing wrong. The fire in this scenario was a high-pressure fuel line letting go and the chances of ever putting a fire like this out while at sea are remote to non-existent. Your crew have done nothing wrong ether, nor has the company no one is to blame, the fire was the result of an unknown manufacturing fault. Your actions throughout the situation were as good as could be expected and you and your crew are completely exonerated from any blame.
The point of this blog, therefore, is to try to forewarn you of what a situation will be like and allow you a few more minutes to ensure the safety of you, your crew,
and your passengers, because in a situation like this, the vessel is pretty much doomed.
If you think this is an unrealistic scenario, read the following!
I have the most pedantic engineer I have ever run across. To say he irritates me is an understatement. On a fishing vessel, especially a deep-sea factory trawler, things are always breaking in some way or form. Usually, they are not critical items but it does keep the engineers busy regularly. This particular engineer wants to fix every item to a pedantic level, which is slowly driving me slightly mad. His engine room though is a work of art, I have never seen an engine room kept in such a pristine state, including Naval ships! I have also seen this engineer with his ‘hot-rod’ parked on the wharf when we were alongside and while I am no ‘petrol-head’ even I had to admire this work of art. One day He comes up the wheelhouse and informs me that I need to stop the engine because he suspects one of the high-pressure lines is about to crack. I check our position; we are several hundred miles from anywhere and so I shut the main engine down. It takes this engineer twelve hours to fix the problem by which time I am pulling my hair out. The engineer then sends a report through to the company engineering manager who passes it on to the makers of the engine. We in the meantime carry on with our normal fishing operations. Within 24 hours there is a reply from the engine makers, who say that the High-pressure line we fixed had a manufacturing fault and that they are redesigning the part and a replacement will be on the way from Europe in the next few days. We also get a separate general warning email from the engine manufacturers sent to all vessels (worldwide, it was a lot of vessels) with this engine to check the part and replace asap with a new part which will be supplied. When we arrived in port a few weeks later the part was sitting on the wharf so I took the time to have a look at the suspect part as well. I could not see any fault with the old part and while the new part was slightly different in size and length, I could not see any other difference. The old part had been rubbing slightly on the engine manifold and it was only a matter of time before it let go, spraying high-pressure diesel onto the exhaust manifold. what this particular engineer was doing examining the engine in such detail was beyond me but this is how engine room fires start and there is no way we could have fought this fire.
So, what I want to do here is break down this scenario into its various components and offer some advice on each of them, but let us be clear, in such a situation like this, ‘do the best you can, do not beat yourself up over what you might have done, if everyone gets off alive then you have done your job. (There are always armchair admirals who will voice alternatives, but if you notice, they are never where you and I are standing).
The first thing you will notice is that an awful lot happens in the first few minutes and that you seem to be running around like a headless chicken all without enough time or people. This predicament is called ‘information overload’ and is one of the first things that a proper fire training instructor taught me when we carried out onboard fire training. As skipper, I was simply swamped trying to organise the B. A party, get the crew mustered and organised, send out distress messages let alone even get a clear idea where the fire was supposed to be on board the vessel. Delegation is the solution to this. In my case, the Mate took charge of our dedicated fire party, the factory managers mustered the crew and oversaw shutting all the vents, while the engineers isolated the fuel shutoff valves and stood by to initiate the CO2.
Just a point on CO2 while we are here. CO2 works by starving the fire of Oxygen, thus breaking the fire triangle, but it does not remove the heat from the fire and if the machinery space is not sealed properly then it will not have the desired effect. It may dampen down the fire but as soon as air makes its way back to the seat of the fire, the fire will re-ignite. Therefore, the engine room or machinery space will need to remain sealed for a lengthy period, usually 24 hours at least. (Seek advice from ashore before re-entering any compartment)
On smaller vessels this delegation may not be as possible as on larger vessels with more crew but here is where training and forethought can circumvent these shortages. So, let us start at the start and work our way on from there.
Stay tuned to what steps you can do in the event of a fire in fight or flight part 2...
- Captain M Prendeville