Preparing for Shipboard Fires

Proper training takes the mystery out of marine firefighting

By Randy Morton
Published Thursday, January 31, 2008 | From the February 2008 Issue of FireRescue

Many shore-side fire departments, responsible for matters dealing with marine firefighting and other hazards, may not be as prepared as they should for the many dangers associated with vessel fires. Fire departments well versed in shipboard firefighting do exist, but they are few and far between.

A large commercial vessel has been compared to that of a large building, with most of its volume in the basement levels. That alone should give rise to concern. A container vessel, for example, may have an internal depth of hull approximately seven stories, with access through an entry point in the hull one deck below the uppermost deck, commonly known as the weather deck. Above the weather deck, you’ll usually find the accommodations, consisting of up to eight decks. Together, these decks make a structure equivalent to a building with nine aboveground and six below-grade stories.

As with buildings, commercial ships vary in design, materials and general layout, further complicating the fire attack. Many large commercial vessels contain all the elements of a small town: heavy industrial units, high bay warehousing, a hotel, leisure facilities, workshops, bulk oil storage, offices and other ancillary facilities.

In this article, I’ll introduce some of the challenges of shipboard firefighting and explain how your department can—and must—better prepare to meet them.

Who Responds?

When a vessel’s master reports a fire onboard the vessel, a number of agencies may respond to the call. If the vessel is at sea or at anchor, the Canadian Coast Guard or U.S. Coast Guard respond, assisting from the waterside by combating the fire from sea and evacuating personnel from the involved vessel, commensurate with their level of training and available equipment.

For a fire in a vessel tied up alongside, the local fire department should respond with all the necessary/available resources based upon the size/severity of the fire, the hazards present and the possibility of the incident expanding.

Note: It’s not acceptable for fire departments with limited experience and exposure to marine emergencies to turn a blind eye.

I have heard fire officers cite budgetary constraints, liability concerns and a general lack of experience as reasons why their department is reluctant to incorporate marine firefighting as part of their training curriculum. Fire departments responsible for providing fire protection to vessels within their jurisdictions shouldn’t hesitate to develop and implement a marine emergency response program for their members. Recognizing that your department has a responsibility to the shipping industry is a good start.

Challenges of Shipboard Firefighting

Marine firefighting is unarguably one of the most challenging of all firefighter disciplines. If you’ve ever responded to a fire on a large commercial vessel, you may have experienced some of the following:

  • As you work your way through the vessel, you think for a moment that you’re slipping on an oily deck, only to discover the soles of your boots are melting.
  • You advance on what you believe is the seat of the fire, the heat almost unbearable, only to discover this is just an adjacent compartment and the main body of the fire is inaccessible from your location.
  • The thermal imaging camera shows all bulkheads glowing, indicating the fire may have spread to more compartments, but fails to display an opening in the deck with a 10-meter (33-foot) drop.
  • You arrive on scene to find thick black smoke coming from the stern of the vessel. The ship’s crew isn’t on scene to meet you, and you don’t have access to the vessel. As you establish command, explosions occur, sending debris rocking over the vessel.
  • Broken English from a deck officer indicates two crewmembers are unaccounted for.
  • You have an action plan in place and your recon team has completed its size-up, provided the incident commander (IC) with the ship’s fire plans and located and brought one of the ship’s officers back to the command post. Power and ventilation to the area have been confirmed shut off, your teams have been briefed and the hoselines are laid. As your teams proceed below the weather deck, all communication is lost. You don’t know when your team is on air, where they’re located and what, if any, progress is being made.
  • A runner reports not all power has been isolated and the attack team requests clarification and confirmation prior to proceeding further.
  • With the command post established on the jetty, a number of agencies arrive to offer assistance and demand to know the status of the situation.
  • You arrive on scene to discover the vessel on fire is underway; in other words, the vessel is moving under its own power.

Consider some other specific challenges. You may arrive on scene only to find that the vessel reporting the incident is at anchor. Where are the doors when a ship is at anchor? If you’re lucky, there might be an accommodation ladder angled down the side of the ship. Does your preplan address the mode of transportation designated to transport your teams of firefighters to the vessel? Can you imagine climbing a narrow, unsupported accommodation ladder with all your firefighting gear while the ladder bounces up and down several feet as the vessel pitches and rolls?

If you’re fortunate enough that the vessel is docked or tied alongside the pier or jetty, you still face a number of challenges, including:

  • Interfacing with the ship’s crew;
  • Communication issues;
  • Hazmat;
  • Coordinating multiple agencies arriving on scene;
  • Search and rescue;
  • Limited access, narrow access routes and confined spaces inside the vessel;
  • Unprotected deck openings;
  • Moving equipment;
  • Electric shock hazards;
  • Confusing interior arrangement; and
  • Ventilation and vessel stability.

The incident complexity may vary, but in most cases, success is determined by the department’s level of preparation, training and general knowledge associated with the marine environment.

Establish a Plan

Realistic pre-fire plans are a crucial part of any marine emergency response program. The numerous resources and specialists required at a major shipboard fire can rapidly turn a command post into a chaotic area. The time to prepare for a vessel fire is before it occurs, when you have adequate time to identify resources, prepare special equipment, and coordinate, review and practice the response plan. Preplanning involves the following steps:

  • Determine which commercial and private vessels are present in your community, including their location and quantity, and how often they frequent your port; previous incident history; and surrounding exposures and hazards. Canadian and U.S. port authorities are good resources for this information.
  • Conduct a hazard analysis to determine the probability of a vessel fire. Factors that influence fire probability include the vessel’s construction, her cargo, terminal operations and/or shipyard operations. Identify the hazards that could threaten the crew, property and the environment in the event of a fire. You should know what emergency response resources will be required, including personnel, equipment and supplies.
  • Develop written shipboard firefighting guidelines and procedures. Guidelines and procedures can include but are not limited to initial response considerations (water supply, apparatus positioning, staging, harbor security, etc.), marine firefighting team operations and fireboat operations.
  • Conduct pre-fire surveys on vessels that frequent your ports on a regular basis. NFPA 1405: Guide for Land-Based Fire Fighters Who Respond to Marine Vessel Fires highlights how to conduct a pre-fire survey, which is extremely useful in the event of a fire. This is also an excellent opportunity for your fire department to begin opening the lines of communication with the vessel’s crew, and, more importantly, the vessel’s master. Many vessels sailing to and from Canadian and U.S. ports are foreign flag vessels, which means the crew may not speak English. For the most part, masters and mates should have a basic working knowledge of English, but you should know where to locate interpreters if required.

Preplanning also encompasses training for your personnel. Due to the broad nature of marine firefighting, it may prove beneficial to divide the skills into three distinct levels, similar to hazmat training standards: awareness, operations and technician.

A typical marine firefighting program begins with a 40-hour, site-specific marine firefighting introductory course. This should be followed by regular marine environment familiarization of vessels, terminals, shipyards, etc. Fire department personnel should be tested on a regular basis to ensure all practical shipboard
firefighting skills are maintained to an acceptable standard. Like many other firefighting disciplines, it takes many hours of training to prepare for a vessel fire.

First-Arriving Actions

Our natural response to any fire is to act immediately, and this is particularly true when responding to structural fires that present synonymous and sometimes predictable characteristics. This isn’t the case with large fires on vessels. Approach a large vessel fire like you would approach a hazmat incident. As with hazmat incidents, the actions the IC takes in the first 10 minutes of a vessel fire usually dictate the success of the next hour.

Note: What’s described here reflects strategies for fires in vessels tied alongside. Unless your department has the resources and experience to respond to a fire on a vessel that is out to sea or anchored, you will be overstepping your boundaries.

Due to jurisdictional issues, establishing command may not be as cut and dry as you may think. If you have overlapping responsibilities between the vessel crew, the fire department and the port authority, you may be able to overcome problems by successfully using a unified command structure. That said, the unified command structure must be supported with established memorandums of understanding with other agencies, and the vessel master should be familiar with the incident management system.

The first-arriving fire officer must consider a wide range of actions in deciding how best to deploy resources. Marine fires require a strong, centralized command. To prevent freelancing, objectives must be prioritized and agencies organized. The IC must gather all pertinent information, including what has occurred and what will be occurring, before developing the action plan.

The fire control plan is one of the most important resources on a large commercial vessel. It provides information such as the general layout of the vessel, fire-suppression systems and vessel construction features. Unless your members are very familiar with a particular vessel, the fire control plan will be a very valuable tool. Many port authorities make it mandatory for the vessel fire control plan to be placed in a watertight container adjacent to the gangway for shoreside fire departments. If this location isn’t used, the fire control plans must be clearly marked and kept outside the deckhouse. Fire control plans are also located on or near the bridge or displayed on a bulkhead.

Initial actions should address rescue of endangered persons, confinement, exposure protection and preventing fire spread. The strategies and tactics may vary depending on the situation and the fire’s location on the vessel. Confining the fire to the compartment of origin and preventing fire spread can be accomplished by establishing boundaries. Hopefully, the ship’s crew has taken immediate action prior to the fire department’s arrival, confining the fire, closing doors and hatches and isolating power and ventilation to the affected area.

Ventilating a ship fire is a delicate procedure. Although the basic principles of fire ventilation may be applied to ship fires, it may not be easy to establish a path for the fire gases without causing fire extension or creating flashover/backdraft conditions. In short, conduct ventilation practices only after you have consulted with the vessel master, officer or engineer and when you are certain the process will not create additional problems.

If the fire has not been confined, the IC must establish fire boundaries. Position charged hoselines in areas that would be directly affected by heat transfer. In some circumstances it may be possible to prevent the spread of fire by removing combustibles in designated areas from direct contact, thus preventing additional fuel sources from igniting through heat transfer. This is referred to as “boundary starvation.” Boundary control techniques are a very important consideration for any fire aboard a large vessel. Unfor-tunately, it seems many fire departments don’t place enough emphasis on this tactic.

Fire Attack Considerations

A fire in a vessel’s compartment is basically a fire in a metal box. The fire spreads in six directions through a ship’s structure. Heat may be transferred through the metal bulkheads and the deck or deckhead to adjoining compartments. The fire-resistance rating varies with the type or class of bulkhead. A class “A60”-rated bulkhead is composed of steel or equivalent metal, preventing smoke and flame from penetrating, or passing through, for a period of 1 hour.

On commercial vessels, the fire-resistance rating of bulkheads is divided into three classes: A, B and C. The structural fire protection and fire load for a space can be related to the classification during vessel construction and design. The letters relate to incombustible material with the numbers relating to the amount of insulation required on the bulkhead to prevent the rise of temperature on the non-fire side of a bulkhead with the corresponding time in minutes.

False ceilings, commonly found in a ship’s accommodation areas, can conceal voids through which ventilation ducts and other services run. These void spaces may be subdivided by smoke barriers, but if this space has been penetrated, fire can spread into adjoining spaces.

Power and ventilation should be isolated prior to commencing any firefighting operations. Electrical power and ventilation can be isolated from the main control room. The ship’s crew should accomplish this task.

The usual fire department tools and supplies can be used to mitigate a ship fire. Standard equipment consists of, but isn’t limited to, thermal imaging cameras, piercing nozzles, distributor nozzles, dewatering pumps and foam proportioning equipment.

Preparation Is Key

Like other industries, the shipping industry continues efforts to improve its safety record by incorporating new technology such as better fire-suppression systems, fire-alarm systems and firefighting equipment. However, fires still occur, regardless of technological changes and improvements. In 2006, a discarded cigarette butt on a stateroom balcony led to the death of one passenger and injured 13 more on the cruise ship Star Princess.

Since it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all risks associated with shipboard fires, the need for a well-trained, effective emergency response capability will always exist. Even when all the plans have been prepared and all personnel are trained to an acceptable standard, it’s advisable that the IC should be prepared for the unexpected. No two ships are identical, and no two incidents will be exactly the same.

One thing is certain: The fire will either be extinguished, or it will eventually burn itself out. The question is how and by what means. A well prepared attack, with a carefully thought out preplan and coordinated resources to support your attack, is essential. Proper training of your personnel is imperative in providing safe and effective management of a shipboard fire. Be proactive, not reactive.

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A fire in the engine room of the 570-foot freighter Violetta burned out of control in December 1998, forcing the evacuation of the crew. AP Photo/The Galveston County Daily News, Kevin Bartram
Access to ships is often difficult and requires climbing narrow, steep ladders while wearing your protective gear and carrying equipment. Photo courtesy Randy Morton
The attack team of the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt (CFB Esquimalt), Canada’s west coast navy base, evaluates conditions before opening the hatch and advancing to the deck below. Photo courtesy Randy Morton
First-arriving actions when responding to a ship fire include connecting with the vessel’s master and consulting the ship’s fire control plan. Photo courtesy Randy Morton
The CFB Esquimalt confined space rescue team removes a packaged casualty during a training evolution. Photo courtesy Randy Morton


Preparing for Shipboard Fires

Proper training takes the mystery out of marine firefighting Shipboard fire
A fire in the engine room of the 570-foot freighter Violetta burned out of control in December 1998, forcing the evacuation of the crew. AP Photo/The Galveston County Daily News, Kevin Bartram

Access steps for ship
Access to ships is often difficult and requires climbing narrow, steep ladders while wearing your protective gear and carrying equipment. Photo courtesy Randy Morton

Firefighters training on shipboard firefighting
The attack team of the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt (CFB Esquimalt), Canada’s west coast navy base, evaluates conditions before opening the hatch and advancing to the deck below. Photo courtesy Randy Morton

Firefighter consulting ship fire control plan
First-arriving actions when responding to a ship fire include connecting with the vessel’s master and consulting the ship’s fire control plan. Photo courtesy Randy Morton

Confine space rescue aboard a ship
The CFB Esquimalt confined space rescue team removes a packaged casualty during a training evolution. Photo courtesy Randy Morton