Preventing Fires on Your BoatBy: Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, USCG Station Fort Pierce
When a fire occurs in a building, we evacuate to the safety of the outdoors and usually turn the fire fighting over to trained professionals. When we are at sea on our boat however, it is a little different. Our boat is often the only safe haven for many miles around. Because of the distances involved, fire fighting services may be delayed in providing assistance to you. Hence, fires are often referred to as a boats worst enemy. Therefore, we must take extra precautions to prevent fires from occurring on our boats and also know how to extinguish them once they ignite.
Three elements must be present for a fire to exist. These include heat, fuel, and oxygen. When we remove any one of these elements or disrupt the chemical reaction, the fire will be extinguished. There are four classes or types of fires. They are classified according to their fuel source.
The fuel for an "A" fire includes wood, paper, or any thing that leaves an ash. The best extinguishing agent for an "All" fire is usually water.
The fuel for a "B fire is burning liquids, such as gasoline. The best extinguishing agent for a "B fire is the application of a special extinguishing foam blanket. Foam is usually not used by the recreational boater. Instead, the recreational boater usually uses a dry chemical powder extinguisher to extinguish a "B" fire. Dry chemical extinguishes the fire by disrupting the fires chemical reaction.
A class "C" fire is the result of electrical current igniting electrical insulation and other electrical components. The preferred extinguishing agent for a class "C" fire is carbon dioxide (CO2). Note that CO2 does not conduct an electrical current whereas water does. You should not use water to extinguish an electrical fire, especially when circuits are charged. CO2 extinguishes a fire by displacing the oxygen. You must be very careful not to asphyxiate yourself when using a CO2 extinguisher while down below or within a compartment (indoors).
A class "D" fire includes burning metals such as magnesium. The best extinguishing agent is to jettison them overboard.
There are several federal boating safety regulations which specifically help to prevent heat (ignition sources) and fuel from mixing. A regulation the U. S. Coast Guard enforces, which helps to prevent a potential heat ignition source, requires that all vessels with an inboard gasoline engine have a Coast Guard approved backfire flame control device mounted on their carburetors. This device simply prevents an open flame from entering the vessel's engine compartment and igniting any accumulated flammable gasoline vapors. The backfire flame control device must be securely mounted and provide a flame-tight fit.
There are several regulations which prohibit the accumulation of fuel and/or vapors (gasoline) in your engine compartment and bilges. These regulations require that vessels with compartments that have less than 15 square inches of opening to each cubic foot of contained compartment volume are required to have ventilation ducting installed. The ducting is designed to remove fuel vapors from the confined spaces of your engine room and bilges.
In addition to the ventilation requirements, regulations prohibit a vessel from being operated with leaking fuel or fuel in its bilges. It has been said that an ounce of gasoline, under the right conditions, contains as much energy as a stick of dynamite.
Up until now we have been discussing regulations which help prevent fires from occurring on your vessel. A regulation which helps the vessel operator extinguish an existing fire on the vessel requires all recreational vessels with enclosed construction, or recreational vessels larger than 26 feet, to have Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher(s) on board to be used to fight the fire. Approved extinguishers include dry chemical, CO2, and Halon. Fire extinguishers approved for marine use are designated by a letter and a roman numeral. The letter B is used to designated extinguishers used for marine use because class "B" fires or burning liquids are the most common fire to occur on a boat. The roman numeral refers to the size fire the extinguisher is capable of extinguishing. Note that some states have more restrictive fire extinguisher requirements.
There are many safety practices you should follow to help prevent fires from occurring on your vessels. Gasoline vapors are heavier than air. Therefore, when fueling we must be sure to close all vents, doors, and hatches. This will prevent gasoline vapors from entering your boats bilges and coming into contact with a possible ignition source. If equipped, you should operate your boats blower, which is a forced ventilation system, after refueling, for at least five minutes. Check your confined spaces with your nose, smelling for any possible fuel vapors. When refueling, be sure to keep the hose nozzle in contact with the fill pipe. When gasoline is passing through a pipe it can cause a static electrical charge to build up. A spark between the nozzle and the fill pipe can cause an explosion. Keep your bilges free of dirty rags, oil, paper, etc. Use extreme care when smoking cigarettes, disposing of them correctly. Never smoke when refueling your boat.
Due to limited space, this article has only provided an overview of preventing fires on your boat. I strongly encourage that you call the US Coast Guard Customer Information Line at 1 (800) 368-5647 to find out where and when a USCG Auxiliary Boating Skills and Seamanship Course will be offered in your area.