A boat fire, especially offshore, is a frightening thing. With smoke and flames pouring down narrow corridors, into small rooms or across a deck, escape routes are few and often nonexistent.
Acute awareness of the possibility of a fire occurring at any time is important for any workboat operator. That’s because a workboat is “a floating ignition source,” according to Randy Hyde, the senior firefighting instructor at Fremont Maritime Services, a Seattle marine safety and survival training company. “There are tons of ignition sources on board, especially when dealing with machinery spaces and engine rooms.”
Keeping these ignition sources properly stowed is part of what Hyde calls “housekeeping,” which includes taking care of oily rags to prevent spontaneous combustion and eliminating oily bilge water.
Poor maintenance is also an issue, the lack of which can result in ruptured fuel lines.
Cigarettes are another fire starter. “We basically throw that category into company policy,” said Hyde, referring mostly to designated smoking areas and proper butt disposal.
“Realistically one of the major causes of fires in the maritime industry — and it’s a big deal in the Coast Guard’s mindset — is a lack of due vigilance. That means the boat’s operators have a lack of situational awareness or a sense of urgency. They are poorly trained and poorly equipped.”
Hyde always asks company employees who come to Fremont Maritime for training whether they feel their company has a comprehensive fire prevention plan in place. To those who raise their hands, he asks, “Do you feel it can be better?” Almost everyone agrees it could be.
Along with having a fire prevention plan it’s necessary to maintain essential firefighting equipment: main and auxiliary fire pumps, portable extinguishers and fixed fire-suppression systems.
You also need to have fire hoses and nozzles, as well as self-contained breathing apparatuses. And although not all boats are required to have them, firemen’s outfits are always a good idea.
Though it seems obvious, Hyde emphasized that once a fire is detected “it’s critical to sound an alarm so everybody onboard is aware a fire is happening.” After that you want to “isolate the fire, seal it off or attack it with some type of portable extinguisher.”
Locating a fire at its earliest stage is a big advantage in controlling it. The FV300 FlameVision from Scott Safety uses an infrared sensor array to locate a fire. It then sets off an alarm and indicates the fire’s location on a monitor screen in the control room or wheelhouse. It shows both single and multiple fire sources.
“That way you can avoid sending a guy down into a potentially hazardous environment,” said Shaun Endsley of Scott Safety.
The FV300 is able to detect flames through smoke and even solvent vapors and with 260 individual sensors provides a detection range through a 90° field of view.
To extend your safety factor, you might want to match up the FV300 with Scott Safety’s Meridian Universal Gas Detector system, which was introduced in March.
What makes Meridian different from other gas detection systems is that it can accommodate multiple sensors, enabling the detection of different types of gases. For instance, if there’s a CO2 fire suppression system on the boat, Meridian will detect any leaks, which would displace oxygen.
The Meridian transmitter also has relay switches “that can kick on fans to help displace gases,” said Endsley.
If the fire is in an area of the boat lacking a fire suppression system, or you don’t want to activate it because it might shut down machinery, an option is the grenade form of fire extinguishing.
Actually, it’s not a grenade in the explosive sense, though the delivery is similar: pull the pin, toss the 10-lb., 9"-dia. DSPA-5 (Dry Sprinkler Powder Aerosol) in the area where the fire is burning and close the door. There’s roughly an eight-second delay from the time you pull the pin to activation. After activation, an aerosol cloud is generated, which expands rapidly, flooding the space and knocking down the flames.
Within a few seconds the fire should be out, said John Reardon at Hercules SLR (US) in New Bedford, Mass., the East Coast distributor for AFG Flameguard USA’s DSPA-5.
At Fremont’s training center, DSPA-5 was tested in their 102', two-level, multispace mock ship where it put out a simulated engine-room fire in seven seconds and a galley fire in six seconds.
DSPA-5 is non-pressurized aerosol-based fire suppression and extinguishing system. The aerosol system breaks the bond between oxygen and fire, though the oxygen level stays the same. The aerosol absorbs the fire’s heat, bringing it down from 1,000° to 300° in a matter of seconds,” said AFG Flameguard’s Joe Kuesis.
Also, the dispersed aerosol stays in an active state for an hour after release, thus preventing a fire from reigniting.
Reardon said one advantage of the DSPA-5’s aerosol-based fire suppression over “powder dry chems” is that it won’t shut down an engine or have corrosive effect on machinery. “Dry chems get into a blower or air filter and the engine will seize up,” he said.
A good instrument for measuring a fire’s intensity, as well as searching for people that might have collapsed from smoke inhalation, is Scott Safety’s Eagle Attack thermal imaging camera.
It’s a lightweight (27 oz.), digital, hand-held camera with a temperature readout. If you look through the viewfinder at the top of the camera, anything you are pointing at will have a temperature reading, and you get the outline of an object — say a person — based on temperature differences.
“If you have a lot of people aboard, you want to make sure you evacuate them and no one is left behind. You go in and do a quick scan of the room,” said Endsley.
Before entering a room, you can point the camera at the door and it will give you an idea how much heat is being generated behind it. “You can determine if a fire is behind the door and figure a plan of attack,” Endsley said.
Optional imagery provides temperature-based colorization: an area over 200° F is yellow, 500° is orange and 800° is red.
“It shows you where the hottest spots are and you can point the hose in that direction,” Endsley said.