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Fire Proof Your Yacht

Whether moored or cruising, here’s everything you need to know about fire safety on board

 

Few words strike terror in the heart of a skipper more than “Fire on Board!” When ashore, your immediate goal is to get everyone out of a building (or vehicle) and move them to a safe distance from the flames—then leave the fire fighting to trained professionals. But offshore, there are no “front yards” or emergency pullover lanes to escape to, and assistance at sea may take a while to arrive on the scene.

 

Boat fires can be particularly hazardous because they can spread rapidly. Fiberglass not only burns quickly, it can also produce massive volumes of toxic smoke that can be equally dangerous.

 

The good news is, the keys to fireproofing your yacht—and assuring the safety of yourself, your crew/passengers and your vessel are straightforward and simple: Preparedness, Prevention and Protection

PREPAREDNESS

As a skipper, you are responsible for the safety of your vessel, as well as the people on board. So even before stepping foot on your yacht or heading off to open waters, there are steps you can take to prepare for an unexpected fire: 

  • Get educated. Take safety courses—including first aid, fire extinguisher use, and safe boating and navigation. 
  • Have an escape plan. Make sure you, your crew, your family and your guests, are aware of all the exits onboard and that you can easily reach and open them. Conduct a safety walk-through of your vessel and ask yourself questions like, “Can I get out of the boat if the normal exit is blocked by fire?” “Can hatches be reached? “Do they easily open?”
  • Remember, practice makes perfect. Stage periodic drills to teach crew and passengers how to deal with a potential fire in each area of your vessel. Make sure there’s a personal flotation device for each person on board and that everyone knows where these are and how to put them on correctly. Also give them a heads up on where the fire fighting (and other safety) equipment is located, and show them how to operate it. 
  • Designate a first mate. Be sure someone on your yacht can operate the yacht and radio in case you become incapacitated.
  • File a Float Plan. Always let at least one friend or relative, as well as your marina manager, know where you’re going and when you plan to return. That way, if something unforeseen happens, and you don’t make it back as planned, searchers will gain a valuable head start in locating your vessel. Your Float Plan should include the basics: phone numbers to be called if the boat is overdue, a description of your yacht, registration numbers, names of passengers on board, etc.

PREVENTION

The best way to fireproof your yacht is to take precautions to keep a fire from ever starting. To do this, Pantaenius recommends:

  • Checking your engine on a regular basis. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the bulk of boat fires that occur in open water while underway originate in the engine room or with a boat’s propulsion equipment. Over time, fuel fittings and fuel hoses wear out. Inspect these fittings and hoses often—especially those near the engine, where engine heat and vibration can accelerate deterioration.  
  • Giving your electrical system the once over. Insurance claims research reveals that 55% of boat fires are electrical in nature and originate from either the DC or AC writing systems. Regularly check for bare wires and loose electrical connections, which could cause a short in your electrical system and spark a fire. Inspect power cords and plug prongs for deterioration that can result from years of outdoor use. Also keep an eye out for cracked, brittle or discolored insulation. Always have electrical problems fixed promptly—and by a pro, since many electrical fires on boats result from do-it-yourself installations of equipment and wiring. 
  • Installing smoke detectors. Early warning of a fire is critical and can mean the difference between putting a fire out and having to abandon ship. In fact, statistics show that when a smoke alarm is activated, the fire is extinguished over 80% of the time. While the Coast Guard only requires that smoke alarms be installed in the sleeping compartments of small inspected vessels that carry paying passengers, no such requirement exists for recreational craft. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sees that as a cause for alarm and recommends smoke detectors be installed on all boats 26’ or larger with sleeping areas.

Where to place these? At the very least, you should install smoke detectors inside and just outside of all sleeping quarters. If you are sleeping below, you should also install them in the galley and salon to provide early warning so you can safely exit your vessel. It’s best to use UL 217 listed smoke detectors approved for use on recreational vehicles. Unlike the smoke alarms used in homes, these RV-rated alarms have been tested to withstand higher temperature variations, vibrations, high humidity, and salt spray for extended duration. Be sure to test your smoke detectors regularly by pushing the button—especially if you haven’t been aboard for a while. Also, change your smoke alarms’ batteries at the start of every boating season, and replace your units every five years. 

  • Inspecting fuel tanks annually. Pay particular attention to bottom surfaces, which may have been in contact with bilge water. Also check to see if any part of the tank could have rusted, corroded, or been damaged due to rubbing and abrasion. And if your tank is aluminum, keep in mind that the U.S.C.G. has found that these are particularly susceptible to corrosion if not properly installed and maintained.
  • Banning these devices. Do not use portable electric or propane heaters on board. The fire hazard is too great. 
  • Checking heating and cooking appliances. Are they secured and operating properly? Do a routine inspection for leaky valves and connections.
  • Keeping things clean. Keep your yacht (and surrounding areas if you’re docked) clear of rubbish. Make sure flammable items are stowed safely and cannot come into contact with cooking/heating appliances or hot engine parts. Store any cleaning products, oils or solvents in secure containers. 
  • Filling ‘er up safely. Near shore, fuel-related fires outnumber other causes by two to one. Fortunately, these are also the most avoidable incidents. When fueling your yacht, follow these Coast Guard-recommended procedures:
  • Close all hatches and other openings before fueling.
  • Extinguish all smoking materials.
  • Turn off engines, electrical equipment, radios, stoves and other appliances.
  • Remove all passengers.
  • Keep the fill nozzle in contact with the tank and wipe up any spilled fuel.
  • Open all ports, hatches and doors to ventilate when finished.
  • Run the bilge blower for at least five minutes.
  • Check the bilges for fuel vapors before starting the engine. 
  • Knowing how to use propane safely. Many marine stoves and grills use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a combination of propane and butane. It’s efficient, inexpensive and widely available. But it’s also highly explosive if not properly installed and maintained. If you use propane aboard your yacht, be sure your tank meets industry standard safety requirements (look for a stamp from the Department of Transportation or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers near the tank valve), and that it’s stored properly. The safest spot for a propane tank is in a properly designed propane storage locker isolated from the rest of the boat. Propane storage lockers should be vented for air and designed so that heavier-than-air propane vapor fumes will drain overboard—not into your cabin or bilge.

Always turn on your tank at the valve, and don’t forget to turn off the safety switch when cooking is completed to prevent possible leaks into the galley cabin. Also, just as you would with your propane BBQ grill at home, be sure to turn off the propane tank’s valves when you leave your yacht to go home. 

PROTECTION

Should a fire break out aboard your yacht, your best defense is having the proper tools to douse it before it causes damage or harm. For this reason, be sure to:

  • Have plenty of fire extinguishers on board. These life-saving devices are labeled by what kind of fires they are intended to put out: (A) solids, (B) liquids and (C) electrical fires, and using the wrong type of extinguisher on a particular type of fire could be dangerous and make matters even worse. Fire extinguishers approved for marine use are designated by a letter and a Roman numeral. The letter B is used to designate extinguishers used for marine use because class “B” fires, or burning liquids, are the most common fire to occur on a yacht. The Roman numeral refers to the size fire the extinguisher is capable of extinguishing.  
  • All powerboats are required to have at least one U.S. Coast Guard-approved marine fire extinguisher on board, and depending on the size of your yacht, you may need more than one. For example, boats that are 26’ to 40’ must carry two B-1 or one B-II U.S. Coast Guard-approved fire extinguishers. Yachts that are 40’ to 65’ must carry three B-1 or one B-II and 1 B-1 U.S. Coast Guard-approved fire extinguishers. U.S. Coast Guard-approved means each unit must carry a USCG Approval Number and be mounted in a secure bracket. 

A better alternative: Spend the few extra dollars for a tri-class (ABC) extinguisher, as these are rated to work on all kinds of fires—including those that are electrical in nature, as well as those related to typical combustibles like wood, plastics, etc.

  • Go above and beyond. Keep in mind that carrying only the required minimum number of extinguishers is literally "playing with fire." The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has issued extinguisher recommendations that go beyond the Coast Guard's minimum requirements. Also, keep in mind that accessibility to your extinguishers is equally critical. If you can't get to one when you need it, it's worthless. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't have to travel more than half the length of the boat to reach this life-saving device.

Here’s how many fire extinguishers you need and where to place them: 

  • a portable unit inside each sleeping compartment
  • a fixed unit sized to/mounted inside your engine room
  • a portable unit outside the engine room door
  • a portable unit in the galley to handle stove flare-ups
  • a portable unit mounted by the main companionway for use on deck or anywhere else it’s needed
  • a portable unit up top on motor yachts or trawlers with a fly bridge
  • Maintain them properly. All portable extinguishers should be checked monthly to make sure the gauges are reading within the safe range, as well as for signs of physical damage, corrosion, leakage or clogged nozzles. It’s a good idea to keep a log, noting the age and condition of each one. Also, have a professional inspect them annually.
  • Know how to use these. In the heat of the moment, you’re not going to have time to read instructions, so just remember the P-A-S-S Word: 
  • Pull the pin on the canister
  • Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire.
  • Squeeze the trigger of the extinguisher.
  • Sweep the nozzle back and forth across the base of the fire.

YOUR YACHT’S AFIRE…NOW WHAT?

Remain calm but act quickly. Focus on the security and safety of your passengers and vessel by taking these emergency steps:

  • Call for help. Put out a distress call on your radio by contacting the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF-16 ASAP. Be prepared to give your location, the name of your vessel, a description of the boat, the number of people on board and the nature of the fire. Rescuers may not get there in time to stop the fire, but they will send someone or something to get there in time to fish you out of the water if you have to abandon ship. 
  • Shut down your engine(s) and electrical system. Do this AFTER putting out your distress call.
  • Make sure everyone puts on life jackets. If you’re forced to abandon ship, all aboard will be prepared. 
  • Use your accessible fire extinguishers. To operate, remember the P-A-S-S Word
  • Close all compartment doors, hatches and port lights. This will help starve the fire of oxygen. 
  • Shut off valves—but ONLY if it’s safe to do so. If the fire has a source such as a flowing charge or liquid, and you can safely get to a shut-off valve, shut it off and starve the fire.
  • Position your yacht this way. Have your first mate turn the boat so that the fire is down wind and proceed ahead as slowly as possible to maintain steerage. This will buy you time, as the fire can’t fight its way upwind easily.
  • Be prepared to abandon ship. If you cannot get the fire under control quickly, prepare your lift raft, grab your abandon-ship bag, and assemble and account for all crew members and passengers. 

Information provided by Dennis Kerr, CFI, CFEI, CVFI, a certified, licensed and insured fire investigator who is court-qualified in State and Federal Courts. He can be reached at Kerr Fire Investigations; 4911 Lyons Technology Parkway, Suite 11; Coconut Creek, FL 33073; 561-470-1304 or 954-296-4427; www.kerrfire.com

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