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Firefighting & Fire Prevention

Good safety practices can prevent fires. Hands-on practice can increase your effectiveness when fighting a fire.

Firefighting & Fire Prevention

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

An engine room fire erupted on a scallop fishing vessel south of Nantucket, but crew could not enter the engine room to fight the fire because it was too hot. The fire then spread to below the dash and licked up the wiring into the wheelhouse. They were able to put out that fire with a portable, accessible extinguisher and used oilskins to smoother it.

Next the crew taped open the handles of some CO2 portable extinguishers, placed them in the engine room, and quickly shut the door. This action was finally successful in saving the vessel and the crew.

Previous to the incident, this vessel had eleven extinguishers on board with five extinguishers in the engine room—four of which were 15 pound CO2 extinguishers. A recommendation had been made to switch two CO2 extinguishers from the engine room to the pilothouse and galley, which made them accessible to use in this fire. Fortunately for this vessel and crew, a drill conductor who had been running the monthly emergency drills had convinced them to keep some extinguishers outside the engine room for accessibility!

To successfully battle fires, every area of a vessel needs accessible, functioning portable fire extinguishers, crewmembers who are trained to operate them, and for larger vessels, an automatic firefighting system.


In order to burn, a fire must have fuel, heat, and oxygen, plus the chemical chain reaction. All fire prevention and fire suppression is aimed at separating the combination of these four components.

Anything can fuel a fire as long as there is enough heat to vaporize it into gases. The reason gasoline and other petroleum liquids are so dangerous is that they vaporize at low temperatures. Fires are categorized into five classes, A, B, C, D, or K, depending on their fuel.

Fuel, heat, oxygen, and their chain reaction are needed for a fire to burn.

Fuel, heat, oxygen, and their chain reaction are needed for a fire to burn.

Types of Fires

  • Class A fires are fueled by ordinary combustible materials such as wood, bedding, clothing, canvas, rope, and paper.

  • Class B fires are fueled by flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline, oil, paint, grease, etc., and flammable or combustible gases such as acetylene and propane.

  • Class C fires are electrical fires.

  • Class D fires are those caused by combustible metals. The only Class D metals aboard most fishing vessels are in flares.

  • Class K are cooking oil and fats.


Fires can be a combination of several classes. An engine room fire would most likely be a BC fire, but could easily be an ABC fire. The key to successful fire fighting is to choose the extinguishing agent that will put out the fire.

Fixed and Portable Extinguishers

Every fire-extinguishing agent, whether in a portable or a fixed system, puts out fires by eliminating fuel, heat, or oxygen, or by breaking the chemical reaction between these components. In order to snuff out a fire, an extinguishing agent needs to be properly directed. That’s why trained crewmembers are a vital component of successful fire fighting. Even if you have an automatic system, you may still need to close vents and fuel lines, and shut down engines for the system to work properly.

Fixed Fire-Extinguishing Systems
A well-maintained fixed system using CO2 or halon can detect and extinguish small fires before they become too large to fight. Unfortunately, CO2 displaces oxygen, and halon can break down into toxins. You cannot use your fixed halon system with a halon substitute; the system will have to be replaced since halon substitutes are not as effective as halon, and require larger capacity lines and bottles.

Portable Extinguishers
Portable fire extinguishers are classified and clearly marked by both a letter and number (except for class D fires, which have no number). The letters, A, B, C, D, or K, identify the class of fire the extinguisher will put out if it is used properly and the fire is not too large for the extinguisher. Some extinguishers work on more than one class of fire and will specify that on their label. For example, an extinguisher might be labeled BC and would be effective on class B, class C, or class BC fires.

The number indicates the size of the extinguisher. Although the Coast Guard uses the Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, or V to indicate the extinguisher size, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) uses Arabic numerals (2, 4, 5, etc.). In both cases, larger numbers indicate larger and heavier extinguishers. The Coast Guard system identifies the physical size of the extinguisher, while NFPA ratings indicate the amount of fire the extinguisher will put out. The two rating systems cannot be interchanged.

Fire Extinguisher Classifications. Fire extinguisher labels designate the types of fires for which the extinguisher is classified with letters and shapes.

Fire extinguisher labels designate the types of fires for which the extinguisher is classified with letters and shapes.

Types of Fires and Extinguishing Agents

Fire Type
Extinguishing Agents
Water works well. Multipurpose dry chemical or ABC-rated extinguishers are also appropriate. Foam is excellent and penetrates better than water. Carbon dioxide (CO2) will work, but not as effectively and is not usually rated for class-A fires.
Carbon dioxide (CO2), foam, dry chemical, or halon/ halon substitutes are best. Water can be used as a fog or high volume spray on diesel fuel, but not on gasoline.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) or halon/halon substitutes work best. Dry chemical will also extinguish the fire, but will ruin electronic equipment. CO2 may also damage electronics by thermal shock. The extinguishing agent must be non-conducting. Shutting off power to the affected fire source is most important.
Sodium chloride or copper-based dry powder.
Wet potassium acetate. Leaves no chemical residue to clean up.

The table, Types of Fires and Extinguishing Agents,  indicates which agent works best for class A, B, C, D, and K fires. In order to put out a fire, you must use an extinguisher classified for that fire. Using a class BC extinguisher on a class A fire be inefficient and could make it worse. Choose extinguishers
for fires that are most likely to occur in a particular area.

For example, extinguishers in engine rooms should be rated at least BC, as a fire in this location is likely to involve flammable liquids or gases (class B) and electrical equipment (class C). Having the proper extinguisher is no guarantee that the fire will be put out. Crew members must be trained to use extinguishers effectively. U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements are minimal for fire extinguishing agent capacity, especially for small fishing vessels. Carry additional fire extinguishers. Remember, when you are at sea, you are the fire department.

Extinguishing Agents & How They Work

Extinguishing Agent
How It Works
Removes the heat source by cooling the fire.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Deprives the fire of oxygen.
Cools the fire and deprives it of oxygen.
Dry Chemical
Interferes with the chemical reaction. May cool, smother, and provide radiant shielding.
Halon or Halon Substitute
Interferes with the chemical reaction.
Dry Powder
Removes enough heat to bring the material below the flash point.

Using Fixed Extinguishing Systems
For safety reasons, a manual activation device should be located outside the compartment containing the fixed fire-extinguishing system. Before a fixed system is discharged, everyone must be evacuated from the area. CO2 for example, will deprive the space and and anyone in it of oxygen.

In order for the halon or CO2 system to work, the space where the fire is burning must be completely sealed. This means that hatches and doors must be closed, and ventilation and exhaust systems shut
down or manually closed off. If the vessel is operating, both the fuel supply and electronic motors will need to be shut down to increase the likelihood of extinguishing the fire and reduce the chance of a

Because some chemicals do not cool fires, spaces must be thoroughly cooled before they are ventilated. This can be done by cooling the exterior bulkheads and decks with a deck hose. Failure to adequately cool the area will cause the fire to flash back. Whenever possible, do not reopen a closed space where an automatic system has been triggered until adequate and professional fire-fighting resources are available.

Using Portable Extinguishers (APASS)

  1. Alert all persons on board.

  2. Pull the pin on the portable extinguisher with a twisting motion.

  3. Aim low.

  4. Squeeze the extinguisher’s trigger.

  5. Sweep the base of the fire rapidly. Drop your aim to the base fire quickly to avoid wasting extinguishing agent.

Pulling the pin on a fire extinguisher.

First, pull the pin on the extinguisher.

The pin on portable fire extinguishers must be pulled out before the extinguishers will work. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the flame.

Keep your face away from the top of the extinguisher, and release the contents by squeezing the two handles together or by opening the valve. On a cartridge-operated, dry chemical extinguisher, the puncturing lever also must be hit with the palm of the hand. Do not hold directly onto the horn of a CO2 extinguisher. It can get cold enough to cause frostbite.

As the extinguisher is discharging, drop your aim to the base of the flame quickly and rapidly sweep the it with a vigorous back and forth motion. If the fire is electrical (class-C), turn the electricity off and aim the extinguisher contents at the source of the fire. Work quickly and aim accurately. Some small extinguishers empty themselves in just 8 to 10 seconds.

How to use a fire extinguisher: Aim low, squeeze trigger, and sweep the base of the fire rapidly.

Aim low, squeeze trigger, and sweep the base of the fire rapidly.

General Fire-Fighting Tips

  • Be properly outfitted before attempting to fight a fire. If professional firefighting clothing is not available, wear wool clothing underneath rain gear. The rain gear acts as a vapor barrier against steam. Wear leather gloves, not synthetic or rubber.

  • Do not wear cotton, polypropylene, or synthetic clothing; they ignite at low temperatures and will cause severe burns. In enclosed spaces, use a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a safety line and a backup fire fighter, also equipped with SCBA.

  • Always have a backup firefighter in contact with you to pull you out of trouble, to prevent you from getting lost in the smoke, and to provide another extinguisher if needed.

  • Always keep your escape route open and clear. To maintain an uninterrupted flow of agent to the fire, have backup extinguishers and crewmembers immediately available.

  • Although you must be fairly close to the fire to successfully fight it with portable extinguishers, do not approach the fire too quickly. Be familiar with the range of your extinguishers, so you don’t have to go closer than necessary.

  • If you need to retreat, back away and keep your eyes on the fire. Never turn your back on a fire.

  • Halon and CO2 tend to blow away in windy conditions, so keep the wind at your back. This may mean turning the vessel.

  • Firefighting is dangerous business. Fires and decomposing halon and halon substitutes produce poisonous gases, and CO2 displaces air. Because the vapors are invisible, you cannot determine
    their level of concentration by the amount of smoke in the air. When halon decomposes, it produces a sharp, acrid smell. This should be a signal to leave the area immediately. When using these extinguishing agents or fighting a fire in an enclosed area, you must either exit the area quickly or wear self-contained breathing apparatus.

  • Get extra ABC extinguishers. The requirement for fire extinguishers on board is a very minimal standard. You should have an extra extinguisher in every compartment.

  • Don’t breathe smoke. Smoke can quickly overcome you. Sometimes the best strategy is to close up the affected space as air tight as possible and let fire consume the available oxygen and diminish. Abandoning ship into life raft is also an option for protecting life.


Breaking the Fire Triangle and Stopping the Chain Reaction

  1. Shut off engine(s), and fuel and gas lines that are feeding the fire.

  2. Deprive the fire of oxygen by closing doors and hatches, and closing off ventilation systems.

  3. Use the proper fire extinguisher for the class of fire.

  4. Use your extinguishing agent wisely, it may only last 8 to 10 seconds.

  5. Cool combustible materials before they ignite, to slow the fire’s spread. This is especially important in metal boats, which conduct heat well.


Specific Tips for Classes of Fires
Class-A fires will re-ignite if they are not totally cooled or covered with the extinguishing agent. Be very cautious working around burning fiberglass laminates, epoxies, and urethane insulating foam. They give off extremely toxic vapors.

Class-B fires must be smothered or blanketed with the proper extinguishing agent. Be extra careful not to scatter the fuel while fighting these fires. Shut off the fuel source if possible. Shut the electricity off before attempting to extinguish class-C fires.

Fire-Fighting Steps

Now that you are familiar with fire, fire extinguishers, and some basic fire-fighting tips, it’s time to put it all together into a strategy. When a fire is detected on board, follow these five steps, some of
these steps may occur simultaneously.


  1. Size up the emergency, notify the Coast Guard. When a fire is detected, sound the alarm and get information on its type, odor, location, and size. Notify the Coast Guard immediately of your problem, needs, and location. They can advise you on fire-fighting procedures and transport additional equipment to you. The fire-fighting method will depend on the vessel’s arrangement, the location of the fire, and the available equipment. Every vessel should have a plan for fighting fires in all spaces.

  2. Do a head count. Rescue trapped people. Check to make sure a crewmember is really missing before a rescue is attempted. Wear protective clothing and special breathing gear, stay low to avoid as much smoke and heat as possible, and always have a backup. You may need to extinguish the fire as you do the rescue.

  3. Confine the fire to its present size and location. This is the time to shut doors and hatches, shut down engines, close off ventilation and exhaust systems, and turn off electricity and fuel lines in the fire area. Remember to check the fire’s boundaries on all sides, bottom, top, corners, and outside. The vessel's station bill should have the duties of a Boundary Person assigned to do some of these tasks and to check for hot spots to be cooled.

  4. Extinguish the fire with the least damage to people and property. A coordinated, trained crew will do steps many of these steps simultaneously, causing the least damage to the crew and contents. However, it is better to extinguish the fire with some damage, rather than to try to save the catch and lose everything. Make preparations to abandon ship while fire-fighting operations are taking place. Move survival gear to a safe location. Assign one crewmember to prepare life rafts, etc. Abandon ship only if it is more dangerous to be on board than in the water. If a fire seems out of control, consider abandoning the vessel into a life raft on the windward side of the vessel if the hull is not hot. Leave the raft’s painter line attached to the vessel until you are sure it should be cut.

  5. Overhaul. This involves examining areas affected by the fire, cleaning up, and restoring machinery and equipment for operation. If water has been used to fight the fire, dewatering should begin immediately in order to maintain the vessel’s stability. Before opening closed areas where halon or CO2 has been released, make sure they are sufficiently cooled. Where other extinguishing agents have been used, examine the fire area for hot spots or embers that need to be cooled or extinguished. Do not try to remove embers and burned material from the spaces without immersing all involved materials in water before removal and disposal. Be prepared to fight new fires during the overhaul.
    Set a reflash watch.

Cartoon of two fishermen trying to borrow fire extinguishers from the fish house and sell a load of "smoked halibut".


The importance of training cannot be overemphasized, especially once at sea, when the crew are the fire fighters. Away from port there is no fire department to call, and the Coast Guard’s priority is to put out fires only when lives are in jeopardy.

All crewmembers should practice using the portable fire extinguishers and should know the basics of fighting fires, how to evacuate from all areas of the ship, and how to sound the alarm and recognize it. In one study, only 75% of people with no experience could put out a fire. But 98% of those with just minimal training could put out a fire. To increase your effectiveness in a fire at sea, take advantage of any opportunity to practice actually using an extinguisher .

The 46-foot fishing vessel, Miss Emma, burning near Ko'Olina, Oahu, Hawaii. The Coast guard rescued all seven crew.

The 46-foot fishing vessel, Miss Emma, burning near Ko'Olina, Oahu, Hawaii. The Coast guard rescued all seven crew.

Fire Prevention

Preventing vessel fires involves common sense and taking time for maintenance checks. If you can answer “yes” to the following questions, you are practicing good fire prevention. A “no” answer means you are flirting with a fire hazard.

Additional Information

Good information on fire extinguishers and fire fighting are available from:

National Fire Protection Association
1 Batterymarch Park
Quincy, MA 02169-7471
(617) 770-3000

Vessel Safety Manual
North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association
1900 W. Emerson, Suite 101
Fishermen’s Terminal
Seattle, WA 98119
(206) 285-3383

Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting and Fire Safety
U.S. Dept. of Transportation
Maritime Administration

For sale by
Superintendent of Documents
U.S. Government Printing Office
710 North Capitol St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20401
(202) 512-1800
866-512-1800 toll free

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