Basic fire safety aboard yachts

20 January 2015 • Written by Kelly Sanford
An exhaust leak led to La Diva yacht burning for 12 hours at her dock in West Palm Beach, Florida.

If you were to take a group of experienced yacht captains and ask them what worries them the most when they go to sea, weather might make the list, electronic or mechanical failures could be a concern, piracy might be another, but overwhelmingly, captains are most concerned about a fire on board.

Major fires aboard yachts seldom end well, even if the fire occurs in or near a port. Because of their complex nature created by variables such as thousands of gallons of fuel, structural plastics that become extraordinarily toxic when on fire, and complicated layouts that include multiple confined spaces, boat fires are classed as among the most dangerous types of fires to fight.

For this reason, many fire departments will not board a vessel to fight a fire, unless there is an imminent danger to life. Even the United States Coast Guard (USCG) has a strict policy against crew boarding another vessel in order to fight a fire, which does not present an immediate risk to life.

The most realistic expectation in the event of a fire is that responders will address any life safety risk and then attempt to contain the fire to the afflicted vessel and assist in protecting the environment. Heroic efforts to protect property losses are not typical.

Accurate preparation

Mitigating losses means your crew needs to react quickly and accurately to keep fire from spreading and becoming a threat to the safety of those aboard.

Although most crew will complete Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping (STCW) Basic Safety Training, which includes a full day of fire-fighting training, it is a dangerous misconception to believe that this is all the training your crew will need.

Todd Kollar, the STCW Fire Training Specialist for the state of Alaska, says, ‘To meet the requirements for STCW, it is possible to complete your fire training in a single day. Up here in Alaska, where just about everywhere is “remote”, in addition to Basic Safety Training, I spend three full days on fire training – a whole day just on extinguishers – and even our intense program would not constitute complete preparation

‘An STCW is not the end of safety training, it’s the beginning. It is meant to give [crew] basic knowledge and an incentive to learn more. The certificate is not a substitute for an on-board plan specific to your vessel, regular drilling and remedial training, which the captain and owner should require.’

‘We certify a lot of individuals for STCW training, but there are not many yacht crew who then come back looking for extra firefighting training,’ says Clifford Charlock, fire school manager for Resolve Maritime Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Every year for the last four years, Captain Brad Kitcher and the entire crew of the 51m motor yacht Lazy Z have undergone refresher fire training as a team at Resolve.

‘I was very surprised when Resolve told us that we are the only yacht that conducts extra firefighting training every year as a crew,’ says Captain Kitcher.

Additionally, there are a number of services that will come to your boat and conduct a yacht-specific fire safety evaluation.

Both crew and passengers must be fully aware of what to do if a fire breaks out. ©Stockfreeimages

Fire safety inspections

Recently, was invited to join Charlock and Resolve’s Fire Training Manager Tom Jones, as they reviewed the 47m motor yacht Ohana.

During the walkthrough, the Resolve instructors explained the nuances of the vessel’s equipment, pointed out common fire hazards, reviewed systems, suggested drills and recommended some additional tools and gear for being prepared for the most serious situations.

Ohana recently had completed inspection and met all ISM and class requirements. Even so, Jones explains, ‘As experienced firefighters, there are things we see when we are physically aboard a boat that may not come to mind while writing a comprehensive code.

‘We can envision a fire on that boat – one within the actual spaces – and we can suggest things that may not come up in a classroom or be required by compliance codes’

Prevention is the priority

The most fundamental part of a fire safety plan is making the effort to prevent a fire from happening in the first place.

In addition to making sure your crew has all the training and gear necessary to effectively fight a fire aboard the boat, it is imperative that they be given sufficient time to execute drills and do the maintenance items required to prevent a fire in the first place.

‘The engine room, galley and laundry are the top three danger zones on boats,’ explains Jones. ‘Regular maintenance and cleanliness are instrumental in reducing risk in these high-risk areas.’

Many of yachting’s most infamous fires have been caused, in part, by demands of naïve yacht owners intent on maximizing recreational use of the boat to the detriment of maintenance and safety.

The importance of integrating sufficient time in the boat’s itinerary for crew to train for emergencies and address essential maintenance issues cannot be emphasized enough. An owner who does not acquiesce to a captain’s request to address a safety or maintenance issue of concern is flagrantly inviting danger to join his guests on the next trip.

Ship fires are some of the most dangerous kinds to fight, so boats are left to burn unless someone is on board.

Be a part of the plan

Although it’s not the most enjoyable way to start a trip, an owner committed to safety will require that every voyage start with a thorough review of the fire safety and evacuation plan with everyone aboard.

‘The first three minutes are the most important in stopping a fire from spreading,’ says Captain Kitcher.

If it is a guest who first finds a fire, they should know where to find a fire extinguisher and how to use it. When seconds count, time spent looking for help or trying to figure out an unfamiliar extinguisher may mean the difference between a diversion and a disaster.

Ask yourself if you were roused from sleep, blindfolded and denied access to the main staircase, could you find your way to an alternate escape from your cabin? Could your children? If there were a fire, could you locate a fire extinguisher? Do you know where your crew’s muster stations are? Do you know what your crew needs you to do while they attack the fire?

Understanding basic protocol will not only assist an owner in helping his crew if called upon to do so, but also may give the owner and guests the essential peace of mind to not complicate a developing situation with panic should a fire occur with guests on board.

Expect the Unexpected

‘There are not many people in yachting who have never had a fire on board of some description,’ says Captain Kitcher.

Every component of the boat’s fire safety plan should be well understood by everyone aboard. There is a reason first responders constantly drill, and it is because panic is a debilitating emotion. A few minutes of indecision can have devastating consequences.

Make the effort to prepare your crew, commit to a set safety plan and be a part of that plan. It is the steps taken long before a fire ever occurs that will undoubtedly determine the ultimate outcome should the unthinkable happen.

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