What’s the best way to deal with any problem? Stop it before it starts—and the same maxim hold true when it comes to boating. Experienced sailors are some of the most cautious people you’ll meet—and for good reason. While boating is an exhilarating and enjoyable pastime, there’s no getting around the inherent risk involved with heading out on the water, miles away from medical and professional assistance in the case of an emergency.
Fires are perhaps one of the most dangerous, yet preventable, potential threats to safety that can occur onboard a boat. Nothing can replace the effectiveness of fast, efficient action combined with a cool head—critical procedures of effective on-board fire management for dealing with fires before they spread out of control. Following these procedures can not only help sailors prevent a fire, or contain it in the event one breaks out, but they can additionally help them save the lives of their crew members.
First of all, make sure you have the proper size and classification of marine fire extinguishers on board your vessel. You may be required to have more than one depending on the size of your boat—the U.S. Coast Guard has published these requirements along with other highly useful safety information in its Federal Requirements brochure. The document is available for free online and can be accessed at www.uscgboating.org. Ensure that all fire extinguishers are mounted in such a way so that they are readily accessible and positioned in locations that you can get to quickly in the event of a sudden emergency. As with all on-board equipment, regular inspection and maintenance is key. You need to inspect your fire extinguishers at regular intervals to verify they are fully charged and have not exceeded their expiration dates. If your boat has an internal fixed firefighting system along with sprinklers, be sure that it is also inspected and professionally serviced annually in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The majority of on-board fires are caused by fueling and electrical complications or errors. Prior to fueling your boat, request that all passengers disembark the vessel and shut off all open flame sources such as stoves or grills. Close all windows, doors and hatches to prevent excess gasoline fumes from entering the boat and providing a potential source of combustion. During the fueling process, make sure the nozzle maintains in direct contact with the tank in order to prevent contact sparks and avoid overfilling the tank so the fuel has adequate space to expand. Obviously, do not smoke while fueling. After you’ve completed fueling, be sure to wipe up any spillage and dispose of the rag in an off-board, designated location. Re-open all the windows, doors and hatches and run the exhaust blower on full power for approximately four minutes. Prior to turning the engine over, perform a “sniff” test of the bilge and engine compartment. If you detect the odor of gasoline, turn the exhaust blower back on until it dissipates.
In order to prevent electrical-based fires, routinely inspect all electrical connections. Furthermore, inspect any shore power connection lines that you may be accessing prior to connecting them to your boat’s power system. If any wires appear to be fraying or if you see sparks, quickly disengage the main power source and have the problem repaired before attempting to use the device again. As the weather gets colder, be careful when using heaters in enclosed spaces and never leave one running unattended.
In the event that a fire breaks out, be sure that all those on board are fitted with a life jacket in case they have to abandon ship. If possible, steer the boat so that the flame is downwind and direct all passengers and crew move upwind away from the fire. Never attempt to use water to extinguish a gasoline, oil, or grease fire as it will only spread the flames and if there is an active electrical current there is a very real threat of shock—access one of your on-board fire extinguishers and use it instead. To use your fire extinguisher, simply remember the saying “PASS”:
Aim at the fire’s base
Squeeze the handle
Sweep from side to side
Finally, radio for help on your VHF radio or cell phone if you have service and prepare to abandon ship if unable to prevent the fire from spreading out of control.