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Fight or Flight Part 2: How to Manage Stress and Anxiety

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Continuing from part 1 below is a storyline series of steps suggested for handling fire on board. A fire alarm sounds. Treat it as real, every time, do not presume that it is that faulty sensor playing up again, it is the real thing this time and every time. We've all heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?

A tugboat helps put out a fire onboard a Fishing trawler
A tugboat helps put out a fire onboard a Fishing trawler

1. Broadcast this to the whole of the vessel, that way everyone, mostly the crew though, knows what is going on. Use short, sharp phrases only and this is the hardest part, do it in a clear, calm manner.

2. Get feedback from the crew in the quickest possible time or investigate the situation yourself. If there is thick black smoke pouring out of the funnel/exhaust, do not open the engine room hatch and have a look.

3. Stop and engage your brain. Remember you are still the skipper of a vessel so where is the vessel, is it in a safe position? Then make a plan. Training will have sped this process up so the more training you have done, the easier this phase will be.

4. The plan in this scenario was to shut the fuel off and initiate the CO2 and boundary cool with hoses. Not a bad plan all up, in fact, given that most of these vessels do not carry B. A (breathing apparatus) gear then it is the best that can be done in the situation.

5. Smoke! What will amaze you is how much smoke is generated, how toxic it is and how quickly it will fill all internal spaces. The idea that you get low for clean air is more a myth than anything else. Yes, there is cleaner air down low but it is mixed with other gases as well, get yourself, your crew, and your passengers out of this smoke, it will kill you.

6. Radiant Heat. Every fireman I have spoken to that has fought a fire onboard a ship alongside, has one overriding comment, the heat was amazing. Aluminium burns at some horrendous temperature (660c) and you will feel this through your feet. Boundary cooling works but that steam coming off the area will burn. Remember the pretty shirts and trousers the company likes you to wear are not flame retardant but cheap polyester and they will melt onto you. Stop mucking around, this is not only an exercise in futility but even if you get off you are going to spend a long time in the hospital, this is what I mean by not having the right or enough equipment, you cannot even begin to fight a fire on board a ship with B. A and full level 2 firefighting gear. Also, you need to remember, that all those comfortable swabs people sit on are equivalent to cans of petrol, the smoke given off by this and other plastic products onboard the vessel will kill you just as quickly as anything else.

7. Crowd control. You must take control of your passengers. People will do the silliest things when under pressure. As firemen, we were trained when searching a house to do a quick search and then a more deliberate search. Experience has shown that children especially will hide in closets or under beds and I have heard of this happening on ships whereby a crew member hid in a locker and was almost ‘cooked alive’. Issue life jackets early, and get those most vulnerable into the easiest place where assistance can be rendered for them. This may impact your decision-making process in that if your passengers are a bunch of older people, then you may have to make a different decision, like do you attempt to fight the fire or get everyone off? There are no correct decisions, nor are there any wrong decisions, do the best you can.

Fight or Flight

I get called out to a house fire late one night. When we get there, it is obvious that the house is well engulfed and we are not going into this one. The boss immediately sets a perimeter of boundary hoses and we begin to cool the area and the house, (Surround and drown is what the fire brigade calls it). I am on one of the hoses and set myself up about 20 meters from the house, crouched and begin playing with water on the fire. It always used to amaze me just how quickly we could bring these fires under control until someone points out the time and we have been doing this for almost half an hour. I need to change out my B. A bottle and a relief arrive to take over my hose. It’s only as I try to leave that I find my boots are stuck to the bitumen, so while with some difficulty I can move, the tar has effectively melted around me.

In conclusion, this is where ‘SeaLogs’ will come into its own. It records training, and drills and brings up alerts for when these drills need to be done, but these drills are the bare minimum that needs to be done. I would recommend weekly drills, or more, especially on vessels that have employed summer crew. The first few weeks of intensive drills and work are the most important, it bonds the crew, and highlights dangers. Prevention is still the best way to fight a fire.

Conducting a fire drill onboard a vessel
Conducting a fire drill onboard a vessel

Everyone, all around the world practices and trains. What is your excuse again?

I have highlighted an engine room fire simply because these are the most prevalent, however, they are not the only type of fire that a vessel may experience. A well-maintained and tidy vessel will always fare better, there never should be any rubbish, old gloves or other detriment left lying around, especially in machinery spaces, I would do my nut if I saw crew members walk past rubbish, carton strappings or old gloves, it is everyone's job to pick this stuff up and deal with it immediately, not leave it to someone else. Galley fires are the next biggest danger, I simply hate the way I have seen BBQs placed on charter vessels, what idiot thought it was a clever idea to put a gas bottle onboard a ship? Other fires you hopefully will never run across are Carbon fires- This is where the engine is not running hot enough and there has been a build-up of carbon in the exhaust or funnel. You cannot put these fires out and the only way to extinguish them is to burn them out, this is done by running the engine at full load. Flames will shoot a long way out of the exhaust and are very frightening to watch. Electrical fires are a nightmare but usually not fatal, they just leave you with no power!

So, train yourself and your crew if possible, and include the passengers, you need to remember that to them this is one big adventure, and is most likely the most exciting thing that has happened to them all week. They usually want to participate and will take a lot of confidence in you and your vessel because you have included them.

- Captain M Prendeville



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