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.
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 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 labels designate the types of fires for which the extinguisher is classified with letters and shapes.
Types of Fires and 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
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.
Interferes with the chemical reaction. May cool, smother, and provide radiant shielding.
Halon or Halon Substitute
Interferes with the chemical reaction.
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)
Alert all persons on board.
Pull the pin on the portable extinguisher with a twisting motion.
Squeeze the extinguisher’s trigger.
Sweep the base of the fire rapidly. Drop your aim to the base fire quickly to avoid wasting extinguishing agent.
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.
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
Shut off engine(s), and fuel and gas lines that are feeding the ﬁre.
Deprive the ﬁre of oxygen by closing doors and hatches, and closing off ventilation systems.
Use the proper ﬁre extinguisher for the class of ﬁre.
Use your extinguishing agent wisely, it may only last 8 to 10 seconds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Good information on ﬁre extinguishers and ﬁre ﬁghting are available from:
National Fire Protection Association
1 Batterymarch Park
Quincy, MA 02169-7471
Vessel Safety Manual
North Paciﬁc Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association
1900 W. Emerson, Suite 101
Seattle, WA 98119
Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting and Fire Safety
U.S. Dept. of Transportation
For sale by
Superintendent of Documents
U.S. Government Printing Office
710 North Capitol St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20401
866-512-1800 toll free