Fire On-Board! Having a fire emergency on a boat is always a threat that can never be completely eliminated. In fact the Coast Guard will tell you that fire is the greatest single potential for disaster on a boat. So, let’s take a bit of time now to discuss areas of risk, preventive actions that can be taken, and how to respond if the unexpected occurs.
Our starting point begins with the owner/operator of the vessel. He or she must keep especially alert for the possibility of fire and make oneself aware of the possible causes, susceptible areas on the boat, and how to mitigate the risks. What follows is a list of commonly accepted best practices relating to fire prevention on a boat.
· Check for fuel and oil leaks frequently. Before getting underway check that the bilge is free of fuel odors and oil slicks in bilge water. If found clean up spilled fuel or oil immediately and dispose of it on shore.
· Keep enclosed areas well ventilated, be sure flammable liquids are in proper containers (gasoline, paint, propane), make sure combustible material (wood, paper, charcoal, other waste) is also in ventilated areas.
· Be aware of the dangers of spontaneous combustion. Don’t allow gas, paint or oil soaked rags to collect in the corner of a hot compartment or in the engine room. Be aware too that old batteries can ignite.
· Make sure all work on electrical systems is performed by qualified electricians. Be sure that you have rightsized circuit breakers and fuses. In addition, be aware that the insulation on the wire itself ages, becomes brittle, cracks, and chafes. Once this happens, bare wires can be exposed in a way that causes a short circuit that in turn can ignite a flame. Also properly maintain and lubricate electrical motors (Alternators, Fans, Refrigerators, and the Air Conditioner’s Compressor) to prevent excess heat from being created by friction.
Being prepared to defend against a fire also means you have the proper firefighting and safety equipment on board. The Coast Guard requires that boats less than 26' need to have at least one B-1 fire extinguisher. Boats 26'-40' need to have at least two B-1 fire extinguishers on board, or one B2 fire extinguisher. If the boat has a USCG approved extinguisher system installed for protection of the engine compartment, then the required number may be reduced.
Ok, these are the basics; but … what should you do if the fire can’t be controlled? First and foremost if a fire is discovered have everyone on board put on a life jacket, then the operator should broadcast a Mayday call on channel 16 of the ship’s radio. It is also a good idea to have a waterproof handheld radio available for use if you must abandon ship. The passengers should address extinguishing the fire by using the extinguishers. If the fire is combustible materials as described above, water can be used.
During this activity the operator must control the boat in a way that protects the passengers. For a fire on the bow, back the boat into the wind. For a fire at the stern, point the bow into the wind. If you lose engine power try paddles or oars to keep the boat properly oriented with the wind. When you must abandon ship everyone should stay together in the water and swim into the wind/current until a passing vessel, or rescue boat arrives on scene to safely take you aboard.