A fire aboard a ship is unlike any other fire we face. It is unique in many ways, not the least of which is what I call the “politics of the incident.” Can you imagine responding to a fire without the autonomy to control the incident as you deem necessary? That is just one challenge when responding to a ship fire.

Let me start by putting to rest some common misunderstandings. The first is that a ship fire is the responsibility of the United States Coast Guard (USCG), which will fight the fire. It is true that the USCG has the responsibility of port and waterway safety, but it will not engage in firefighting unless one of its vessels is involved. Although the USCG provides a great deal of support, it relies on the fire service to take the lead when there is a fire aboard a ship.

Another erroneous statement I’ve heard is that a ship is not in the fire department’s jurisdiction. Many cities believe their jurisdiction ends at the high-water mark. Although I can’t speak for every city, I suspect that that isn’t an accurate description based on the state’s interpretation. Even if it were true, the resulting lack of response could lead to an economic disaster, loss of life, or both. Can you imagine the headline in the local paper if we fail to respond?

My experience during the 26 years I have spent in the fire service, 10 involved in maritime response, is that the marine industry is extremely complicated and confusing. I’m not referring to the science of fighting a fire aboard a ship, although that is challenging, of course. I’m referring to the politics and history of the industry. You cannot successfully respond to or mitigate a maritime emergency unless you understand the politics surrounding the incident.


A specialty branch of the legal system is dedicated to maritime law, which affects anyone who becomes involved in maritime affairs. As an example, once you cross the gangway and board the vessel, you no longer are considered to be in the United States. A vessel is considered the sovereign territory of the country in which it is registered. To board and engage in firefighting, the representative of the vessel owner at the time of first response, most likely the captain or master, must invite you onboard. Also, if the captain and his crew leave the vessel under any circumstances, including fire, the vessel could then be considered abandoned and, therefore, would be subject to salvage rights.


When responding to a fire aboard a vessel, it is best to develop a unified command (UC) that includes the local fire department, the vessel representative, and the USCG. These entities have jurisdictional responsibilities that must be considered during the incident. Depending on the incident, other parties may be added.


I do not have the answers to all the possible situations you might encounter. We could spend the rest of our careers studying and preparing for every eventuality and still wouldn’t cover them all. I will address those circumstances you would be most likely to encounter.

The Ship as a Sovereign Territory

As mentioned above, a ship is considered a sovereign territory of the flag state. What does this mean? Each vessel over a certain size must be registered by a port state authority, a country. Once registered, the vessel becomes bound by that country’s laws and regulations. A vessel owner most likely will seek out the most fiscally advantageous flag state so that profits can be maximized. That means that an owner operating a vessel with a Panamanian registry may have no connection with Panama other than for that registry. It also means that the vessel and crew are bound by Panamanian laws and regulations. This fact usually will mean nothing to the fire department unless it encounters problems with the crew or vessel owner. As firefighters, we may never have to become involved in solving a political difference, but we need to be aware of the issues involved so we can be better prepared.

Although highly unlikely, the captain of the vessel might deny the fire department access to the vessel. He can legally prevent anyone from boarding his vessel, including the fire service during an emergency. He can also disapprove of the plan developed to fight the fire and prevent it from being initiated. As the vessel owner’s representative, he is the final authority aboard the vessel during the initial stage of the incident. It is important to remember the term “vessel owner’s representative.” Initially, the captain of the vessel maintains this responsibility; however, that responsibility will transfer to someone else later in the incident. The captain understands the ship and sailing, but, when there is an emergency, the vessel owner wants a representative with a stronger legal background in salvage and maritime law. The vessel owner generally will contract with an outside individual to act as his representative during the incident, relieving the captain of that responsibility.

Fire departments are used to being the final authority during a fire; we count on that authority to keep ourselves and the community safe. At a ship fire, we are asked to involve ourselves without autonomy. As always, responsibility for the safety of the fire service responders falls on the fire chief. If we are asked to assist in the mitigation of a fire aboard a vessel, we need to have confidence in the tactics and strategies employed. If we believe we are not receiving the necessary cooperation, we can choose not to respond aboard the vessel and to set up to protect the shore-side exposures. Even though it is likely that the vessel is within the local fire department’s jurisdiction, we are not obligated to put ourselves at risk under the direction of someone other than the fire chief or his designee. In other words, if we are not comfortable with the plan, we do not have to become engaged under the direction of a third party. I am not suggesting that we do not respond. The point is that we need to be confident that we are responding safely and correctly. The fire service is not without influence; through diplomacy and cooperation, our concerns can be addressed and resolved.


Even though, as I mentioned earlier, the USCG doesn’t fight fires aboard vessels, its involvement is essential to a successful outcome. Aside from being able to provide an unparalleled understanding of the intricacies of vessel issues, the USCG, as the federal on-scene coordinator, has the ability to exercise an overriding authority. It is responsible for port and waterway safety and will see that the incident is managed appropriately and effectively. If the unified commanders cannot reach a consensus, the USCG can compel the parties or use its authority to see that appropriate action is taken.

Other main players at a ship fire might be environmental contractors, insurance companies, port officials, owners of the cargo being shipped, and terminal/facility operators, to name a few. As you can see, the complexities of jurisdiction and authority are broad and many. Firefighters must have a cursory understanding of all of the players and their roles and responsibilities and the authority they may have to impose if the fire department cannot resolve the issues involved.

It is also important to consider the way in which we respond to a ship fire. Fire departments are being asked to do more with less during a time when the risks are greater than ever. The term “all risk” is part of many departments’ mission statement. Fire chiefs have to prioritize to balance the budget, and essential programs are being watered down or dropped altogether. The fire service is starting to look at partnerships between public and private entities to achieve a common goal through regional response organizations and having the private sector share in the expense of protecting their assets.


Such a partnership was established along the Lower Columbia River in the states of Oregon and Washington.

The cargo vessel Protector Alpha was moored at a grain elevator in Kalama, Washington, on February 14, 1982. During refueling operations, a fuel tank was overfilled, and oil sprayed onto the hot manifold of one of the generators and ignited. The resulting smoke and fire rendered the service generators inoperative, leaving the vessel without normal electrical power. Emergency lighting activated; but because of the thick smoke, one crew member became disoriented and was unable to locate an exit from the engine room.

A security guard, alerted by the vessel’s crew, turned in the first alarm. Once on-scene, the local fire department and mutual-aid fire companies, with the assistance of the vessel’s crew, were able to rescue the trapped crew member and deploy some firefighting equipment. The assistant chief of the Kalama Fire Department was in overall command of the shore-side firefighters, but he was under the impression that the crew of the Protector Alpha was fighting the fire and that the Kalama Fire Department was there to assist. There was much confusion initially because of the language barrier between the vessel crew and local firefighters.

After a short time, the assistant chief noticed vessel crew members were entering the deckhouse to get personal belongings. He instructed one firefighter to prohibit anyone from entering the deckhouse and ordered another firefighter to evacuate all nonessential firefighting personnel from the ship. In response to this order, the firefighter ordered the entire vessel’s crew to abandon the vessel. When the vessel’s master and mate returned to the dock (they had been in town taking care of some business), they ordered several crew members back onboard.

When the U.S Coast Guard’s captain of the port (COTP) arrived, he asked who was in charge and was directed to the chief of a mutual-aid department instead of the assistant chief of the Kalama Fire Department. In an attempt to determine the extent of the situation, the USCG COTP, the vessel’s master, and the fire chief of the mutual-aid department went aboard and below deck, but they could not reach the fire because of a lack of breathing apparatus. On returning to the main deck, they discovered that the vessel was no longer tied to the dock. Two off-duty dock employees had heard about the fire and took it upon themselves, on arriving at the dock, to cast off the vessel’s mooring lines without alerting anyone of their intentions. At the time the vessel was cast off, about 20 firefighters, including three chiefs, were aboard the vessel.

The Kalama assistant chief, who had considered himself in charge of the firefighting operations while the vessel was docked, now believed he was no longer in charge since the vessel was no longer in his jurisdiction. The USCG COTP believed he was now in charge by default. He ordered that the remaining CO2 cylinders be discharged into the engine room. Two Seattle (WA) Fire Department marine firefighters were brought in for their advice relative to the firefighting operations. After attempting a number of unsuccessful tactics, it was decided to cut a small hole in a steel engine room door so that foam could be introduced. While performing this task, an explosion occurred in the engine room. The door was blown open, resulting in the death of one Coast Guardsman and the injury of another.

After this incident, all personnel were removed from the vessel. The vessel was grounded and allowed to burn until it was extinguished on February 17 by professional salvors (those who salvage or assist in salvaging a ship or its cargo) retained by the vessel’s owners.

This case history illustrates a number of points. It shows that normal fireground tactics and strategies are not effective and can even be detrimental. It also shows that a series of errors is likely to cause a catastrophe. During the Protector Alpha incident, a lack of training, understanding, and proper equipment, as well as outside influences, had negative consequences leading to the final catastrophe, loss of life.


As a result of the >Protector Alphaincident, the maritime industry accurately concluded that the local fire service was unprepared to successfully mitigate a fire aboard a vessel. The private sector decided to find ways to assist the public fire service in preparing for another incident should it occur. The end result was the Maritime Fire and Safety Association (MFSA). MFSA is a private/public partnership that provides training and equipment to the fire service in the region. It is also a regional response organization that will use that training and equipment in a maritime incident. MFSA receives its funding from the private sector and delivers its response assets through the public fire service.

Other regional response organizations have developed independently across the country. And even though these organizations differ slightly in the way they are funded or managed, they all have the same end goal. Only a few fire departments have the resources to effectively fight a large vessel fire. To be successful, cooperative efforts among all stakeholders, including the local fire service, are needed. (Additional information on the Maritime Fire and Safety Association is available at www.MFSA.com/.)

The regional response concept offers a number of benefits to the fire service in connection with low-frequency/high-risk incidents such as fires aboard a ship. Some of the benefits, such as increased response capability and shared training and equipment expense, are obvious. Other benefits, such as increased grant possibilities and cost-recovery assistance, may be less obvious. Grants are becoming commonplace in the fire service, and most grants are tied to some type of regional plan or interoperability. If you want to be successful in obtaining grants, you need to participate in regional planning and response. By participating in a regional response organization for marine response, you increase your chances of being awarded a grant in connection with that type of response.

Another aspect of a marine response, or any specialty response for that matter, is cost recovery. The expense of a large maritime incident can quickly become a financial burden to a fire department. A public fire agency may be able to recover its response costs for an incident of this type, depending on the laws of the respective state. In Washington State, it is permissible for public fire agencies to recover response costs under certain circumstances such as the extraordinary costs for specialty responses involving a railcar, a large incident on one of the interstates, or a fire aboard a ship.

It is also possible to recover costs for a vessel fire in which the incident has the potential of an oil spill. The Oil Spill Act of 1990 (OPA 90) provides for federal cost recovery for oil spill cleanup or prevention efforts. Fighting fires on a ship could be considered as an action taken to prevent a potential oil spill. To recover costs, the response costs must be reasonable and well documented, and it is helpful to have regional buy-off on what is reasonable. I would suggest using your state mobilization rates as a benchmark for what is reasonable. A private/public partnership like MFSA can assist in cost recovery through planning for it and obtaining prior approval from the industry before an incident occurs.

Another aspect of marine response on the horizon that has yet to be realized is the implementation of federal regulations concerning salvage and marine firefighting. We all remember the Exxon Valdez incident, but we are less familiar with the federal regulations that followed. Among other things, the OPA90 requires that all tank vessels that transit U.S. waters have a spill response plan that meets the regulation requirements. Those requirements provide for a timely response with trained personnel and equipment adequate to contain and recover any spill. Some states have expanded this regulation to include all vessels of a certain size, resulting in regulations that are much more detailed, and include ongoing training requirements in spill recovery and incident command.

As you may or may not be aware, if there is large vessel traffic in your community, especially oil tankers, the private sector is training on worse-case scenarios using the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Some of the best trained personnel in the incident command system come from the private sector. And, if you are not already participating in these privately sponsored training exercises, your department’s participation would be welcomed. Imagine full-scale ICS tabletop training at no cost to you and, in addition, positive public relations for the department.

A segment of OPA90 is scheduled to be implemented by February 2007. It would require that all tank vessels that transit U.S. waters have a contingency response plan for salvage and marine firefighting. Like the oil spill plan, there will be time requirements for responding to a fire aboard the vessel.


Below is a brief timeline requirement for a marine firefighting response to a vessel at the pier: What does this mean to the fire service? Maybe nothing, since the fire service is not mandated to participate in the plan and will not be held accountable to the plan. This is a requirement of the shipping industry, and there is a provision that allows the public fire service to participate in the plan if it chooses. Why would the fire service want to participate?

The marine salvage industry is prepared to provide a response plan and contract with vessel owners for the salvage and marine firefighting aspects of OPA90. If you look at those time requirements below, you can quickly see that generally only one group is capable of meeting them-the public fire service. The salvage industry cannot stage personnel and equipment all across the country to meet these regulations. The fire service has a standing army in every corner of the country. Why would the fire service want to take on the additional responsibility? Let’s look at some of the provisions.

Remote assessment and consultation-one hour. Firefighter in voice contact with QI/master/operator. This can be done by anyone anywhere in the world, so this would not necessarily have to be the fire service.

On-site assessment-two hours. Assessment provided by an on-site qualified firefighting representative.

External firefighting teams-four hours. Team and equipment on-scene. Trained firefighting personnel, aside from the crew, with the capability of boarding and combating a fire on a vessel.

External vessel firefighting systems-four hours. Personnel and equipment on-scene. Firefighting resources (personnel and equipment) capable of combating a fire from other than onboard the vessel. These resources include but are not limited to fire tugs, portable fire pumps, airplanes, helicopters, and shore-side fire trucks.

The salvage industry, if the plan holder, should be compensated for its efforts. If the fire service participates, it should be compensated. I doubt that compensation would be in the form of a funding stream, but there are other means of compensation. It makes more sense that the fire service be compensated through cooperative training provided by the plan holder and possible equipment caches placed in the hands of the local responders. Since the local fire department is going to respond in most cases, why not be prepared with training and equipment that otherwise would be missing? I do not mean to suggest that funding should not be a consideration, just that it is less likely. Each department needs to decide what it needs to participate in a response plan and to negotiate for those needs.

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Participating in a response plan brings many benefits. Besides assisting with successful grant applications, it also helps responders transition an inevitable event from public to private command. Although we are the “fire responders” in a marine emergency, we are not likely to be the “last line of defense.” We should anticipate that a private firefighting group will become part of the incident as the public responders transition out, as shown in the Protector Alpha incident. In addition, costs may be recovered, and fire resources can return to duty sooner and direct their efforts where they are most needed in the community.

It is important to remember that the proposed regulation requires that private responders seamlessly integrate into the existing incident command system, so that they do not take over. After interacting with the salvage community, it is my opinion that it does not wish to take over. It is interested in successful mitigation with minimal loss, which mirrors the goals of the fire service. The salvage community can provide a great deal of experience, training, and equipment, which, when added to our experience, training, equipment, and ability to respond in a timely manner, can drastically increase the chance for success in a maritime emergency.

A copy of the regulations and corresponding comments from public hearings are at http://dms.dot.gov/; search for docket #3417.

JEFF JOHNSON is a captain and coordinator of the Vancouver (British Columbia) Fire Department’s marine program. He is involved in maritime issues regionally and nationally, including the development of the Washington State and the National Fire Protection Association standard for marine firefighting. Johnson also co-authored IFSTA’s manual Marine Firefighting for Land-Based Firefighters.

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