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Where There’s Smoke…

I’m a delivery captain and recently underwent fire training again as part of my regular STCW refresher. I also teach safety and offshore sailing skills. I want to respond to the October 14 ‘Lectronic report from Andrew Rosen of the Beneteau 46 Murar’s Dream, which caught fire at Vuda Marina in Fiji. Naturally, I was relieved to read that Rosen and crew were able to deal safely with their fire emergency. The points he made about fire preparedness are mostly good, but I must disagree with two.

Opening the locker on Murar’s Dream, Andrew Rosen may have inadvertantly added fuel (oxygen) to the fire.

© 2013 Andrew Rosen

His fourth suggestion — to "open areas above [the fire] to let out hot gases" — is dangerous on a boat, as the introduction of fresh oxygen will expand the fire, and the hot gases can ignite new fuel above, such as biminis and mainsails. A better practice would be to seal the doors or hatches to the fire area, which would reduce oxygen and protect personnel and materials from radiation and convection. Then the combustible materials should be removed from directly adjacent areas and bulkheads to eliminate the fire’s spreading by conduction.

When possible, such fires should be attacked from below and the side, with wide sweeping motions of dry chem or CO2. In the case of a lazarette fire such as that shown in the accompanying photo, when there is no other point of attack, opening the hatch just enough to point the nozzle of an extinguisher down onto the base of the fire is the safest and most effective solution. CO2 is excellent for contained fires, such as in relatively closed lazarettes, as it immediately starves the fire by forcing out all the oxygen.

Rosen’s fifth point implies that water can be used on a fire once the electricity has been disconnected. That’s not entirely safe. Electronic devices — especially things like the AC unit noted in the story — may contain capacitors that carry a deadly charge much higher than the supply voltage, and can hold that charge for hours after the electricity has been disconnected. I recommend that water, foam and wet chem never be used on any fire suspected as electrical in origin, even after source disconnection.

Only CO2, dry chem and Halon should be used on fires suspected of having an electrical origin. Halon is being deprecated due to its proclivity for releasing toxic HCl into the atmosphere. Water is generally only effective for organic fires — paper, wood, cotton or wool clothing, and so forth. Dry chem and CO2 extinguishers are significantly better to have and use aboard a boat, as they are more functional than water on a wide range of typical fire classes.

The Coast Guard requires uninspected passenger vessels of 26 to 40 feet to carry a minimum of two B-I extinguishers. UPVs of 41 to 66 feet need a minimum of three. B is the classification for oil, gas, grease and fuel fires, while the number following is the weight. I = 2 lbs payload. II = 10 lbs payload, and III a 20-lb payload. I recommend that cruising vessels of 30 to 60 feet carry a minimum of four B-II extinguishers and learn how to use them on various classes of fires. Knowing how to properly dispense extinguishers is critical to firefighting, as it’s not just ‘point and shoot’.

Finally, I recommend that all sailors and cruisers take and regularly update training courses on marine firefighting, and conduct drills on their sailboats on a regular basis. Safety training is only as effective as our ability to remember that training when it is needed.

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