Fire On-Board The possibility of having a fire onboard you vessel should never be overlooked. It is always a threat. Skippers, crews, and passengers should be aware of possible causes for fire, and the areas on a boat that could be susceptible to fire. Prevention … The best way to avoid having a fire onboard is to prevent one from happening. Areas of Concern … Fire prevention begins during your pre-underway check, and doesn’t end until any discrepancies found are corrected and repaired if necessary. Fuel Systems … Be sure your inspection includes the fuel, oil, and lubrication systems. Look for cracked or leaking fuel lines, carburetors, and injections systems. Electrical Systems … Crewmembers should check for abrasions, cracked wiring, loose connections in all electrical systems. These include electronics at the Helm, in the Galley, in the Head, and in the Engine Room. Lubrication Systems … These could be compromised oil lines, or leaking hydraulic accessories such as hydraulic trim tabs, Outboard or IO engine lifts, power steering, and hydraulic engine hatch openers. Conduct a Smell Test … Gasoline and oil vapors fall to the lowest parts of the vessel. Be sure to close all windows before fueling up, and activate your ventilation system. If you suspect you have a fuel or oil leak you will smell that in the bilge. If found, make sure your ignition is turned off, and use approved absorption rags to clean it up. Check to see if you can spot the source. If yes, and you can tighten a fitting do so. If not, you might need to be towed to a safe harbor where a mechanic can make repairs. Do not risk running the boat home. Batteries …When batteries are charging, they can emit hydrogen which is highly explosive. Fortunately, hydrogen is lighter than air and will rise. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation in areas where batteries are being charged. Types of Fires … There are four classes of fires. Each has a different cause, and each has a specific way to be extinguished. Class A Fires … These are fires caused by flammable agents such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and sometimes plastics. These can be extinguished using water, or dry chemical extinguishers. Class B Fires … These fires are caused by flammable liquids, gases, greases, petroleum, and similar products. Extinguishing agents are Aqueous Film Forming Foam, CO2, or Dry Chemical extinguishers. Class C Fires … Electrical fires are caused by faulty wiring, overloaded circuits, and electric appliances. Extinguishing agents are CO2, or Dry Chemical extinguishers. Use a lot of caution when extinguishing an electrical fire because water conducts electricity. In some cases using water to extinguish an electrical fire can lead to electrocution. Class D Fires … Combustible metals, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and titanium. These fires are not common on recreational boats. Extinguishing agents are high velocity fog, or sand. In all cases fires are extinguished by removing heat, and oxygen. Halon … Halon is a very effective fire extinguishing agent. However, it depletes the Ozone layer. While very rare, a few Halon systems exist on old boats.
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 try to extinguish it in a manner as described previously. Have everyone on board put on a life jacket and get out from below deck if they aren’t currently working to extinguish the fire. If the fire is not responding to the effort to control it, the Skipper or person on radio watch 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. Qualified passengers should address extinguishing the fire by using the appropriate means. 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, and you are on a small boat with a small fire being extinguished 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. swim into the wind or current until a rescue vessel arrives on the scene to safely take you aboard. Swimming into the wind and current will put distance between you and the burning vessel. Once clear of the burning boat swim to shore.