Shipboard Fire Fighting: Challenging the Worst Case Scenario

Featured print article from the Maritime Executive May/June 2009 Simon Xiaolei Liang/Sinopacific Shipbuilding Group edition.

Maritime fires have an incredible potential for catastrophe. In fact, a fire at sea is considered by many to be the worst of all possible dangers. Of the ten most lethal fires in American history, four of them occurred on ships. These four shipboard fires alone killed a combined total of 2,138 people.

Merchant mariners have a saying, ‘A fire at sea can ruin your whole day.’ This phrase, with its breezy cynicism, covers a true paradox. With water all around, a shipboard fire can quickly become a pernicious and deadly disaster. When a fire does occur, the primary goal of a ship’s crew must be to save the ship in order to stay alive. The safest course of action is always to fight the fire until the chance of injury or death becomes a greater threat than that posed by the fire itself.

Smoke from a fire poses another serious problem for merchant seafarer. Attempting to navigate through a maze of smoke-filled passageways deep within the ship is an incredibly difficult task. Fortunately, professional mariners receive extensive training and have a thorough knowledge of their vessel and its construction. The location of exits, ventilation, and built-in fire systems are all readily available to the crew as they work to contain a fire. As weight is added or shifted within the vessel, a knowledge of vessel stability is also necessary to ensure that the very actions being taken do not create another situation that could cause a loss of the vessel, or more importantly, lives. Cargo manifests, piping diagrams, and a myriad of other related details must also be known to the crew, as there may not be time to search for a blueprint as the fire builds around them.

Since shipboard fires are one of the greatest perils a mariner may face, I wanted to learn more about the training programs that are available to help prepare a mariner for such a situation. I joined a group of students who were attending marine safety classes at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) near Baltimore, Maryland. While most of the students in attendance were seeking basic fire fighting certification, we were also joined by three mariners who were working towards advanced qualifications.
MITAGS transported the class to the Southern Maryland Regional Fire Training Center for an all-day fire fighting session. I joined the eleven students and a team of MITAGS instructors, including Donald Merkle, Jim Clements, and Eric Friend. At the fire fighting facility, we were also joined by seven professional fire fighters, who were led by Fire Chief Steve Augustine. In case you are counting, that is ten professionals overseeing just eleven students.


The day began with Chief Augustine orienting the students (who primarily work on Military Sealift Command (MSC) vessels, container ships, and tankers) to the order of the day, which was, above all else, personal safety.The mariners then began the process of donning their PBI fire resistant suits (which are made of organic fiber and polymer), Nomex head coverings, helmets, and gloves. For information, the total cost of properly equipping a fire fighter, including fire retardant boots, can be as high as $4,500.

A great deal of time was then spent on one of the most important tools in fire fighting, the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). SCBAs provide respiratory protection while in atmospheres that are considered to be immediately dangerous to life and health. The units can provide self contained breathing times between 35 and 60 minutes.

An important life saving feature on all SCBAs are the alarms. These devices are used to help locate a downed fire fighter in a smoke-filled room or compartment. When a fire fighter has not moved for more than one minute, the alarm becomes activated. To silence the alarm, the fire fighter simply has to move his or her body. Many remember the incident that occurred on September 11, 2001. The sounds that were thought to be cellular telephones ringing in the World Trade Center towers, were actually SCBA unit alarms from downed New York City fire fighters.

A fully-equipped shipboard fire fighter must be able to work in all types of confined spaces, some of which may be filled with smoke. ‘The Maze’ is a dark building that was designed specifically to train students to work in complete darkness while negotiating ladders, steps, and windows. MITAGS’ students were sent into the ‘Maze’ in pairs and were instructed on how to use the hose for guidance. Understanding this universal method of using the hose for direction cannot be understated, as it is a lifesaving technique common to all fire fighters. The hose is put together with male and female couplings. Knowing that the male coupling leads to the fire and the female coupling leads to the pump panel, or out of the building, is absolutely critical for survival and passage through the obscurity of smoke.

“To effectively fight shipboard fires while underway, we need to train crews with the skills and equipment used by professional fire fighters,” says Glen Paine, Executive Director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS), and its affiliate school, the Pacific Maritime Institute (PMI), which is located in Seattle, Washington. “Our students are taught the basic principles and behavior of fire. They learn to handle the hoses and nozzles and how to use portable extinguishers effectively. The use of breathing apparatus and personal protective equipment is also covered.”

The MITAGS’ students then advanced to their next exercise. They were taken to the fire pits for simulated training of an electrical fire, a paint locker fire, and a tanker or engine fire. Each of these “live” exercises has a specific method for confronting and extinguishing the fire. The electrical fire requires the fire fighter to “kill” the power and then ground the CO2 extinguisher to the floor or other solid object. The paint locker fire, which is comprised of either turpentine or oil-based paint, is very dangerous due to the possibility of explosion. In both situations, the class was taught to never turn their back on the fire and to never assume that the fire was out simply because it stopped flaming.

The tanker or engine room fire proved to be the most difficult exercise, as it quickly spread due to the windy conditions. This type of fire can easily proliferate and engulf an entire ship. The exercise teaches the students to work in teams of four, while using large fire hoses for protection. At a distance, the nozzles appear to be streaming the water at a high level of intensity for saturation. However, as the teams step closer to the fire, they discover that they must use the ‘fog’ method for shielding, as it is absolutely essential that the teams stand side-by-side. If the teams separate in any way, the fire could jump between them, possibly causing injury to the fire fighters, but most certainly losing any progress that had already been achieved.

The last exercise that the students encountered was the ‘burn building,’ where the hose technique for directional guidance was tested in a real smoke situation. The students were moved into the building, which had all of its windows and doors open to allow familiarity with the two-story environment. In the middle of the room was a bale of cofferwood on a construction workhorse. With the self contained breathing apparatuses in full deployment, the windows and doors are shut, and the coffer-wood is ignited. Within minutes, black smoke is billowing out through the crevices of the windows and door, while the students make their way through the building using the hose. Remember, there are ten professional fire fighters working with eleven students, so full control is maintained at all times throughout the entire exercise.

MITAGS’ instructors and the professional fire fighters are all certified Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics. Donald Merkle is also a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which was established in 1896 and serves as the world’s leading advocate for fire prevention. The organization is also an authoritative source on public safety. In fact, the NFPA’s 300 codes and standards influence every building, process, service, design, and installation in the United States, as well as numerous other countries.

In addition to being compliant with the NFPA standards for training procedures, MITAGS’ fire fighting programs also meet the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) standards. Furthermore, the courses are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and meet the requirements reflected in the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers Code (STCW-95).

Confronting a fire raging onboard a ship in the middle of the ocean can do much more than ‘ruin your whole day.’ It could potentially kill or seriously injure everyone in its path. The MITAGS fire fighting program was quite extensive and very detailed. The instructors spent a great deal of time critiquing each student throughout the day regarding their performance and ensuring that they were clear on the proper tactics that are required for fighting fires. I came away with a renewed respect for the unpredictability of fire and for the possible dangers merchant mariners face each and every day.

To learn more about the Fire Fighting programs or other courses offered at MITAGS, please contact Captain Robert Becker toll-free at (866) 656-5569 or via e-mail at rbecker@mitags.org. Interested individuals may also visit the MITAGS website at www.mitags.org.

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