Fire Prevention Prep: Learn Before You Burn

30 September 2008 By Elizabeth Altick
Courtesy of bluewater

In August 2008, members of the Saudi royal family were rescued from the burning yacht they had chartered, Mana, after a fire apparently started in the engine room.

Electrical malfunctions may have caused the destruction of Janie II (2004) and Giant II (2007).

Dorothea burned after a fire started in her exhaust system, the venerable Lady Aviva was nearly destroyed by an engine room fire and Keturah caught fire after a lightning strike.

Though relatively rare, yacht fires can be catastrophic. While the majority of crew are thoroughly trained in fire prevention and suppression, it’s easy to be lulled into complacency.

An ounce of prevention goes a very long way.

Have wires and hoses been inspected lately? When was the last time you tested the portable fire extinguishers, automatic suppression systems and alarms on your yacht?

In July 2008, Timoneer caught fire in Nantucket Yacht Basin while the crew was working on a generator. The automatic fire suppression system failed, the handheld fire extinguishers were inadequate and the valiant efforts of the fire fighters, due to low water pressure, were no match for the fire.

The result? $300,000 worth of preventable damage.

When a welding torch caused Alyssa M II to catch fire during a refit in New Zealand, the Nelson fire chief credited the workers’ evacuation plan for getting everyone out alive.

Think of a plan as a script to rehearse, and be sure to practice as often as once a week – or more.

First, determine the best escape routes from all areas of the vessel and, if possible, identify a second way out. Post easy-to-see evacuation diagrams.

Practice drills using a variety of scenarios.

What if there’s fire in the engine room, the galley, a stateroom or you can’t tell where the smoke is coming from? Someone should be assigned to muster guests and hand out life jackets in a safe, easy-to-see location. Be sure all crewmembers know what they are responsible for and how to use the appropriate equipment.

After the Alyssa M II fire, the local fire chief, Kevin Smith, noted the difficulties of fighting a fire involving narrow passageways and steep stairwells in near-zero visibility. To mimic the situation, conduct drills with the lights off or while blindfolded. Practice evacuations from various areas of the ship on hands and knees.

Keep a log of the drill and the names of those involved. File all paperwork, including maintenance and repair records, in a secure place off the boat.

Keep approved fire extinguishers on board and know how to use them.

Fire extinguishers should be mounted near exits, where they will be on hand as you're escaping. Have all safety equipment inspected annually by a licensed fire equipment company –and check their credentials, such as a Class 3 fire equipment contractor’s license, insurance and longshoreman workman’s compensation insurance.

Breathing apparatus and other fire-fighting gear can be lifesaving.

A portable fire/dewatering pump is invaluable for boundary cooling. Keep an emergency portable generator on board, but not in the engine room. If power is lost, the tender davit won’t work; consider towing the tender.

After a fire destroyed a 75-foot Lazzara at the Miami Beach Marina in March 2008, Capt. John McDevitt asked, “Why didn't the occupants have the benefit of a working smoke alarm, like every other consumer in America is required to have?"

McDevitt advocates requiring all boats with sleeping quarters to be equipped with smoke alarms. He notes that they’re particularly important on vessels with only one egress from staterooms. (By the way, crewmembers may want to note – before they take a job – if the crew quarters has a hatch.)

The NFPA 302 Watercraft standard requires smoke alarms in any vessel larger than 26 feet with accommodation spaces. The ABYC does not require smoke alarms on any size vessel.

The recommended type of smoke detector is an optical or photoelectric cell alarm, which is especially sensitive to dense smoke from a smoldering fire. Ionization types are best suited to flaming or quickly developing fires. Multiple units should be linked together and it’s best to test them once a week, perhaps during your fire drill.