A Former Firefighter’s Guide to Firefighting Operations on Board a Yacht

15 February 2022 By Patrick Levitzke

Patrick Levitzke is from Port Macquarie, Australia. He left in 2019 to begin yachting, and found his first job on a private 82-foot Horizon, cruising the U.S. East Coast, with just the captain. Currently, he’s a deckhand on a 210-foot private yacht and has plans to complete his 200-ton license this year.

More expedition-capable yachts are being built than ever before to keep pace with an increasing appetite from owners to venture outside the accommodating waters of the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

A fire on board hundreds of miles from the nearest vessel is different from one in a busy anchorage, where help is a few hundred feet away. With far-flung itineraries, a yacht’s need for self-reliance and proper crew training is vital.

Firefighting capabilities on large yachts rival most rural land-based fire stations. Foam systems, newer digital Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs), and modern fire suppression systems can quickly exceed the scope of your STCW training, and additional familiarization is needed, especially if joining a new build.

Your most valuable asset — after in-built fire suppression systems — is your SCBA. Ideally, kit safety checks happen once a week. While fire extinguishers are fantastic initial interventions, they must be used almost immediately to knock down a fire; they’re almost always untenable in any fire that’s had time to mature for more than a few minutes. For powder extinguishers, check around the nozzle and stem for any white powder residue. If it starts leaking, the whole unit will need to be replaced. For all extinguishers, check the weight, content gauge, inspection card, and ship’s fire plan to ensure the proper extinguisher type is placed where they should be.

SCBAs are your lifeline to rescuing crew or containing fire — it’s the final defense before abandoning ship. Often, it’s not the heat that’s most dangerous; an onboard fire produces some of the most toxic fumes outside commercial factory fires.

Credit: Patrick Levitzke

You’ll want to keep your BA cylinder at no less than 80 percent of full capacity. Check the cylinders’ labeling; however, most on board are around 300bar capacity, so 240 would be the bare minimum. As part of the weekly SCBA check, park your demand valve to your facemask (usually a red button) and slowly open the cylinder valve to charge the lines. Listen for any leaks or prolonged sounds issuing from the airlines once fully charged and note the final gauge pressure. Then close the cylinder valve and watch the pressure — if there’s a leak in the lines, it should now be apparent as a fall in pressure. Some fall is acceptable, but no more than five bars in a minute.

Be sure to close your cylinder and note the air contents somewhere easily visible near the BA for comparison on the next check. As you pack away your SCBA, extend all waist, shoulder, and face mask straps to eliminate too-tight kit for crew trying to dress in a hurry. If you’ve got turnout kit out, stow the corresponding glove to the right- and left-side pant pocket, as well as the flash hood, to save time when you next don your gear.

Donning SCBA and attempting to fight or at least slow a fire on board is the extreme of our jobs as mariners. At sea, that help must come from the crew and their training. Simple, regular drills and familiarization provide the bedrock for a vessel’s self-reliance.

Worst case, with all safety measures exhausted and a fire on board, there is a window of a few minutes for handheld fire extinguishers. After that window, it often becomes dangerous to enter a fire-affected space with just an extinguisher. However, if the fire’s seat is still visible and approachable, PASS: Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep, and you might save the day.

If extinguishers are no longer an option, it’s on to the final resort should your captain choose to send in a fire team. Ask anyone who’s experienced a real emergency for the first time, and they’ll tell you the adrenaline is like nothing they’d experienced before. While it’s useful for haste, massive adrenaline destroys fine motor skills and an ability to think straight. Regular drilling, as close to the real scenario, is the only antidote, as muscle memory remains unaffected. This is crucial in donning your turnout gear, where every minute equals exponential fire growth.

Once fully dressed, check air and check communications. Communication remains one of the operation’s bottlenecks as only the fire team has firsthand knowledge of what’s happening. Relay the lowest air reading from you and your partner’s SCBA to whoever is BA control; usually the chief officer or captain. With paint, plastics, and chemicals on board, toxic fumes pose a threat long before heat will, so get on air well before getting to the fire.

Often, it’s not the heat that’s most dangerous; an onboard fire produces some of the most toxic fumes outside commercial factory fires.

You may have seen during STCW how smoke can “plane” or sit at noticeable heights in a room. Chances are you won’t be able to see the seat of the fire, so how high or low the smoke plane is indicates the intensity. A low plane, especially below eye level, is very dangerous. Get as low as possible to maintain visibility.

While conducting operations, communicate with a short CAN report:

C: What are the Conditions (low to high visibility, smoke, or heat)?

A: What are your Actions (performing door entry, boundary cooling, retrieval, etc.)?

N: What are your Needs (may need the foam dispenser as the fire is fuel-based or may need first aid/oxygen for a rescue)?

This is valuable info for the captain to make informed calls and decisions.

At day’s end, crew aren’t full-time firefighters. But consistent upkeep is the name of the game, and it all comes down to regular fire drills if crew are to be prepared, skilled, and ready to go.


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