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Emergency Drills Ensure Crew Readiness

Commercial fishermen practice donning immersions suits during an onboard emergency procedures drill.

Editor's note: Sometimes we assume that everyone understands the need for practicing emergency procedures skills. In case you need convincing or just never quite get around to conducting drills on your boat, here's an article to help get you going. We wrote this for the February-March, 2018 issue of Tradewinds, published by the North Carolina Fisheries Association.

More and more, we hear about rescues at sea where fishing crews took effective actions to ensure that everyone made it home safely. Not only did they have the required safety gear, they knew when and how to deploy it. However, the knowledge and skill needed to respond to an emergency at sea is hardly automatic. The prudent skipper develops emergency procedures and practices them with the crew.

While every fishing operation should regularly conduct emergency drills, federal regulations require crews on documented commercial fishing vessels operating beyond the federal boundary line to conduct drills. 46 CFR 28.270 requires that drills be conducted and that instruction be given to each individual at least monthly, when the vessel is operating. Instructions and drills must ensure that they are familiar with their duties and responses to the following contingencies:

  • Abandoning the vessel;

  • Firefighting;

  • Man overboard recovery;

  • Unintentional flooding;

  • Launching and recovery of survival craft and rescue craft;

  • Donning immersion suits and PFDs;

  • Donning a fireman's outfit and a self-contained breathing apparatus, if the vessel is so equipped;

  • Making a mayday call and using visual distress signals;

  • Activating the general alarm;

  • Reporting inoperative alarm systems and fire detection systems.

There are three parts to an effective drill: safety orientations, safety instructions, and the actual drill. When orienting new crew, be sure to include the locations and use of lifesaving and survival gear. Be sure to also include locations of vessel components like fuel shut-off valves, breaker panels, and seacocks that may need to be actuated in an emergency.

Your instructions should include which duties must be performed in an emergency and how they must be performed. A station bill is a written list of duties to be performed and who is responsible for each duty in an emergency situation. Writing a station bill will clarify the role of each crewmember before an actual emergency occurs.

Drills must be performed aboard the vessel and include the lifesaving gear required for an emergency. Drill scenarios can be devised to combine the ten requirements of 46 CFR 28.270. For example, a scenario might include an engine room fire, where the crew practices extinguishing the fire, turning off appropriate breaker switches, making a simulated mayday call, donning immersion suits, bringing the EPIRB and other survival gear to a muster station, practicing launching the life raft etc. Drills should be as realistic as possible without putting the crew or vessel at risk. When the drill is complete, ensure that all equipment is stowed in its proper location.

Some captains perform all of their drills in one monthly session. Others drill different scenarios throughout the month. Some create scenarios where the crew will not be expecting a drill and must respond without advance preparation. Just make sure that your crew understands that they are responding to a drill and not an actual emergency. Once you complete a drill, be sure to log it, with the date, time, location of the drill, skills practiced, and the names of the participating crew members. The trained Drill Conductor should sign the drill log.

Many vessel owners hire professional drill conductors to lead drills while the boat is in port. However, the captain or a crew member can conduct drills and instruction with the proper training. The law currently states that the Drill Conductor will have to be a member of the crew and this will be a part of future regulations. AMSEA Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor workshops are accepted by the U.S. Coast Guard as meeting the requirements of 46 CFR 28.270. If you want to conduct your own drills, you can find a list of workshops scheduled across the country at

AMSEA can also provide you with instructional materials that can make crew instruction, drills, and documentation easier. Check out AMSEA’s twenty-page booklet, Commercial Fishing Vessel Emergency Instructions & Drill Manual. Designed to help commercial fishermen meet the emergency instructions and onboard drill requirements as per 46 CFR 28.265, it includes templates for required documents, like station bills and logs.

The book, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, devotes a chapter to conducting effective drills, as well as providing scenarios and debriefing points. The instructional video, Beating The Odds: Onboard Emergency Drills, demonstrates a variety of drills. The video takes the viewer through drills in responding to fire, man overboard, flooding, abandon ship and more. AMSEA publications and videos may be ordered online at In addition, a free iPhone app, FVDrills, is available from the iTunes App Store, if you want to run your drills from your iPhone.

Whether you hire a professional drill conductor or conduct your own drills, drilling emergency procedures develops “muscle memory” of proper emergency procedures. Drills also demonstrate that your crew has the skills required to perform their duties and that they know how to work together when it most counts.

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