Ship Fires vs. Structure Fires: Differences and Preparation


Year after year, firefighters who work around the nation’s seaports are confronted with emergencies that they are less than fully prepared to deal with: the much-dreaded fires that occur aboard large vessels. Any firefighter who has ever fought one knows they are indeed dreaded, even feared, and rightly so. The sheer magnitude of the challenge that a ship fire presents to the responding units can be very intimidating and may quickly overwhelm the available resources. These necessary resources will vary dramatically according to the type of vessel involved—i.e., cargo or passenger. Although we in the fire service spend a lot of time preparing for the “big one,” we routinely overlook the special requirements of these potentially devastating incidents. The shortcomings in preparedness generally include a lack of appropriate equipment and detailed training for those who will respond to these fires. The result could be a great loss of life, property losses in the millions of dollars, environmental disasters, and a major disruption to port activities, not to mention a more perilous task for fire crews.




Of course, the hazards firefighters face during a ship fire include all those associated with other large fire operations. However, these hazards are compounded by a structure made entirely of metal, designed to be watertight, and configured in a layout that does not compare to what might be expected in a typical building. Add in a few critical systems with which we are not familiar, and wrap it all up in a package as big as a high-rise building lying on its side and floating in a body of water. There you have it, the classic “this could be a bad day” moment.

As if all of that were not enough, the tactics we apply to fires in buildings of similar size may be counterproductive when applied to a ship fire, particularly in the early stages. An example of this would be an interior attack below deck supported by positive-pressure ventilation (PPV). Because of the structural differences encountered along the way and the physical demands of overcoming them, the time and effort required to advance hose teams deep within the hull of a vessel are much greater than those in a building fire. As a result, the duration of self-contained breathing apparatus and air management skills become even more critical factors, limiting crews as they struggle toward their target. For these reasons, the interior attack imposes a higher level of risk for personnel in an effort that could prove to be a fruitless expenditure of resources. Meanwhile, PPV can provide a fire below with the one thing it lacks to really take off, a good air supply.

By comparison, the tactics a ship’s crew uses in this type of fire would stand in stark contrast to those commonly employed by land-based firefighters. The simple truth is it might all be a moot point anyway. Because heat buildup and structural deformity occur so rapidly, the chance to make deep penetration inside the hull of a burning ship may well be gone by the time local firefighters arrive on the scene.




So what can first responders do about all this? The answer is organizational awareness followed by focused training. Firefighters should be trained in fighting ship fires before they are called to fight one. All personnel from incident commanders to rookies must understand the substantial structural differences they will encounter aboard large vessels. On entry, they should be expecting the numerous obstructions projecting from bulkheads and trip/fall hazards such as raised sills in doorways or open hatches. There is no substitute for familiarity with the routine fixtures that must be dealt with, including watertight doors and vertical ladders. In addition, firefighters at all levels need to know whom to seek out for information and assistance on their arrival on-scene.

Beyond the physical issues, local fire agencies must understand the legal responsibilities and restrictions for boarding any vessel. The rules are different for “government vessels” of any nation—i.e., naval or research vessels, which are considered sovereign territory and can deny access, as opposed to ships engaged in commerce. With few exceptions, commercial vessels entering the territorial waters of the United States must be signatories to international maritime treaties requiring their submission to the laws of our government at all levels. Coming to grips with all these issues constitutes organizational awareness, and it is only the beginning. Awareness must then be followed by effective, realistic training on tactics and strategies for ship fires that are practiced until they are imbedded. It takes time and resources to achieve all of this on a departmentwide level. It takes research and commitment from those assigned the task of preparing the training, but it can and should be done.




The Seattle (WA) Fire Department (SFD) has tried to address these issues head-on. Seattle has had what can fairly be called a checkered past in the handling of ship fire incidents. But the SFD also has a history of thinking outside the box in confronting those aspects of its mission that could be called “special operations.” Fighting fires aboard large ships in one of the country’s busiest seaports clearly falls within this category, along with disciplines such as hazardous materials and technical rescue. Potential losses from major ship fire incidents alone qualify them for special status. (See “Seattle Fire Department Ship Fire Dollar Losses.”)

In that spirit, the SFD established its Marine Emergency Response Team (MERT) in 1982. The team consists of two land-based engine companies equipped with a specialized response vehicle and fireboats. In the beginning, the MERT had two primary responsibilities, including development of specialized tactics and equipment for fighting fires aboard ships and designing the necessary training. This training would be for the MERT itself and the department as a whole, with the goal of better preparing the SFD for these incidents. With the inception of the MERT, the “marine technician” (MT) was born. Once certified, these firefighters would be charged with providing technical advice to incident commanders as well as conducting nontraditional operations. The vision was to develop a core of highly trained, properly equipped ship fire specialists who would be surrounded by a department with a high level of ship fire awareness. It all sounded pretty good on paper; the problem was how to get there. The department has been working toward this goal, and the learning goes on.

The firefighters assigned to the MERT began by examining the tactics crews of large vessels use to fight fires while at sea. This was an eye-opening experience and brought some answers as to why their tactics are so different from those we typically employ in buildings. It also brought the neophyte MTs face-to-face with the structural realities of oceangoing ships. This process led to their understanding that the proper response to a fire that occurs in the superstructure (or deck house) of a ship would be similar to that firefighters face in multilevel structure fires. Conversely, the approach for fires below deck in engine rooms, cargo holds, and the like needed to be significantly altered. These alterations are directly related to the structural peculiarities of ships and the impediments they place in the firefighters’ path. All of this was common knowledge to sailors but news to many in the fire service.




Grappling with these issues was key to the MERT’s development of its own tactical approach to ship fires. A closer look at the types of systems placed onboard ships to confine and extinguish fires below decks gave strong clues as to the changes in thinking and actions that would be necessary to improve outcomes. For example, ventilation shutdown switches and mechanisms for activating remote extinguishing systems such as carbon dioxide (CO2) flooding are located at all the exit points from critical spaces below decks. This gives a clear indication of the realities of penetrating those areas once a fire expands beyond the incipient stage. It just gets too hot too fast, not to mention the chemically hazardous atmospheres that personnel must work in, which would qualify as hazmat incidents in many cases. In addition, the personnel requirements to advance just one hoseline any distance down inside a ship are significant. Staffing is something that a commercial vessel crew generally does not have in abundance, and many fire departments may face similar limitations.

You may ask, “Just what do sailors do?” Simply stated, with an established fire below decks, their tactic is to lock down the affected area. Then they stifle its air supply by shutting down ventilation systems and depriving the fire of its ability to extend by establishing fire boundaries on as many sides of the space involved as possible. Conceptually, it is much like making a fire line around a wildland fire. Boundaries can be set at two levels. Primary boundaries would use the decks and bulkheads forming the compartment that is on fire, boxing it in. Secondary boundaries are established by sealing off the vessel’s watertight bulkheads and deck openings surrounding the compartment on fire, creating a larger box. (The term “watertight bulkheads” generally refers to transverse bulkheads that run fully from side to side and from the main deck to the keel. All openings in these bulkheads must also be watertight. They are spaced along the length of the ship, dividing it into sections. This allows for containment of flooding or fire in one portion of the vessel while keeping the others viable.) Once the boundaries are established, they are maintained by cooling the decks and bulkheads with water and removing exposed combustible materials. Withholding PPV until boundaries are set may well be the appropriate action to slow the spread of the fire.

Only after this is done would a ship’s crew turn its focus to extinguishment, perhaps by using CO2 flooding or sprinklers. It also could include allowing the fire to burn itself out. Remember, the goal is to contain the damage, of course, but also to maintain the viability of the floating structure. There is a lesson here for land-based firefighters if we are willing to learn it. Think containment first, including zero or negative pressure ventilation. Yes, it is counterintuitive to common practices applied in structural firefighting on land. Sailors do it because it works, and we should, too.




To emulate this example, firefighters should become comfortable with “fire control plans,” which the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) requires on every licensed commercial vessel. These plans show access and egress points and all the details of a ship’s onboard fire control systems without all the muddle of general arrangement plans. From these fire control plans, with training we can determine where to set boundaries, what to close, and how to get there. They are provided for our use, but many firefighters don’t know they exist or where to find them (they are located at or near the gangway or main access point to the vessel). In addition, we must come to accept that a direct attack on a well-established fire deep inside a ship might not be possible without taking unjustifiable risks. It clearly should never be attempted without the necessary resources and a plan for extricating an injured member. It is also true that such an effort may delay the use of methods that are more likely to succeed and are much safer for the personnel assigned to carry them out.

We simply must accept that while the application of water may be an integral part of any ship fire operation, it may not be the agent that extinguishes the fire because we are not able to get the water to the target. Water also has ramifications beyond extinguishment relating to vessel stability, and its application must be carefully controlled. It is just one more complicating factor that threatens operational success and firefighter safety. Capsizing is not an issue in building fires, but it must be accounted for in planning when you are afloat. Relatively small amounts of water trapped in the wrong places can adversely affect a vessel’s ability to stay upright. The higher up the water accumulates, the less it takes to have a dramatic effect. To be truly prepared, a fire department must be ready to deal with the water it places onboard by moving it down low or off the vessel simultaneously while applying it. Portable pumps and various types of eductors are very useful for this purpose.

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Another key issue for firefighters during ship fire operations is the quality of the fire control systems aboard many vessels. For example, it became clear to the Seattle MTs that dependence on a vessel’s fire mains and shipboard fire stations for fire department use would be a hit-and-miss proposition, varying dramatically from ship to ship. You cannot count on the condition of these facilities to be up to the standards we would expect or demand for firefighter safety. Connecting fire department hose to these main systems is also problematic because of different types of couplings.

The operability of the fire pumps (smaller vessels may have only one) is also far from guaranteed. So, for our water needs, the sure thing is to lay large-diameter hose to the deck with a gated appliance attached, tying it off, and allowing it to hang over the side. Provide enough slack for tidal movement; this maintains the viability of the gangway for personnel access and ensures extended handlines will be supplied from a secure water source under our control, through hose and nozzles that are a known quantity. Handling hose inside ships, even for experienced firefighters, is hard enough without adding unfamiliar equipment to the equation.

These realities and many more make it easy to understand why ship fires have historically been such a struggle for local fire agencies. They are just different in so many ways. As a department, Seattle has made significant progress toward improving results with fires that occur in the marine environment. This has been accomplished through a deliberate effort to identify the differences in fighting fires aboard ships and addressing them. One tactic that has proven very successful for the SFD is the application of bulk CO2 from tank trucks located on the dock. Large quantities of the product have been applied over extended periods of time, dramatically reducing exposure of personnel to injury or worse. This approach has resulted in complete extinguishment in each operation in which it was used. It can truly be said that ship fires and the structures themselves are better understood today. Experience has largely proven what works and what doesn’t. The bottom line is that this very frightening and intimidating firefighting environment can be made less so by research, training, planning, and equipping.




Many resources for information and training are available to fire departments. This is a significant change from the situation our MERT encountered in 1982. Many states have training academies that cover this subject. The marine industry is for the most part very responsive to helping the fire service prepare for that moment when our paths may cross. In addition, the USCG is a very strong and willing resource. Its captain of the port is responsible for all vessel traffic and has the authority to compel cooperation and compliance. Although USCG members generally will not fight the fire themselves, they will be a valuable asset in handling these incidents and may take command if local agencies are failing to control the situation. The fire service should cultivate a relationship with the USCG. Local fire departments can be successful at fighting fires aboard ships. They can do it with manageable risk to personnel. All it takes is giving these potential disasters the priority they demand in the name of public safety. When that “bad day moment” comes, established contacts with all the important members of the maritime community will prove more than valuable.

RICHARD A. COLOMBI JR. is a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard and a 30-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department. He has been assigned to the Marine Emergency Response Team since its inception in 1982 and was one of the first certified marine technicians.


Lessons Learned from a Florida Ship Fire



The Miami River is a busy seaport that loads freighters up to 300 feet in length with cargo for destinations in the Caribbean and Central America. Watching these “island freighters” being loaded is like taking a trip back in time, to the days before containerized shipping. Many of the ships on the Miami River are still loaded by dock hands using cargo nets hoisted by ship- or vehicle-mounted cranes—a very time- and personnel-intensive operation by today’s standards.

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(1) The original fire involved vehicles and mattresses stacked on cargo hatch covers. (Photo by Kevin Attai.)

On the evening of July 5, 2008, the Panamanian flag vessel Atlantic was making final preparations for its voyage to Haiti. The 265-foot vessel’s forward and aft cargo holds were filled to capacity with boxes and bundles of clothing; tires; vehicle parts; appliances; and large bags of rice, flour, and beans. The cargo holds were equipped with MacGregor hatch covers, consisting of heavy steel sections that fold like an accordion when open. The hatch covers, when closed, have a rubberized watertight seal that is tightened by rotating cams with a large spanner-like wrench. The top of the Atlantic’s hatch covers were loaded with several vehicles on top of stacks of mattresses, bicycles, and palletized cargo.

Callers to 911 reported a fire aboard the ship caused by fireworks or a marine signal flare. Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue companies found, on arrival, that fire had already spread to involve all of the vehicles and cargo stacked on the hatch covers.

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(2, 3) Forty hours later, a landside crane folded back the forward hatch covers. An aerial master stream was in position in case smoldering fire intensified when oxygen entered the cargo hold, but it didn’t. (Photos 2-7 by Shane Pyle.)
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The initial strategy was to keep the fire from spreading to the ship’s bridge, crew accommodations, and engine room. This was accomplished by directing handlines to cool hot steel bulkheads. The second priority was to extinguish the main body of fire by directing master streams from the dock and from Miami-Dade’s Fire Boat One.

Personnel from Miami-Dade’s Marine Services Bureau continually monitored the master stream’s effect on the ship’s buoyancy and stability. Efforts to stop the fire’s extension into vital areas of the ship were successful. In fact, the engine room never lost power for lighting and pumps for ballast and dewatering.

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(4) A view from the bow of the vessel: the forward cargo hold was packed to capacity, and the ship’s crane between the forward and the aft cargo holds was damaged in the original fire.

Another concern for firefighters was the strong possibility that fire had spread to the cargo holds from heat conducted through the hatch covers. This could not be ascertained because the only access to the cargo hold was through extremely small hatches; cargo blocked any view from the hatchways. This vessel, because of its size and age, was not required to have a carbon dioxide system designed to flood cargo holds and other inaccessible spaces. A properly operating carbon dioxide system could have averted the ordeal that firefighters were to face.

The only way to gain access to the cargo holds was to offload everything from the top of the hatch covers and open them. Unfortunately, the ship’s owner had only the equipment used to load the vessel—that is, one mobile crane and cargo nets. Additionally, no dock workers were available on a Saturday night. Companies remained on the scene for several hours until all accessible metal surfaces were cool. Hopefully, this indicated that the fire had not spread below the hatch covers, but no one knew for sure.

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(5) A three-inch hoseline and gated wye were hoisted onboard and secured with webbing; two 1¾-inch handlines were supplied.

On Monday, July 7, at 0800 hours, 36 hours after the initial alarm, Miami-Dade fire companies responded back to the vessel because dock workers offloading the hatch covers reported smoke; however, they were still hours away from being able to open the cargo holds. The ship’s owner seemed comfortable with the pace of the off-loading operation. This attitude, however, abruptly changed when the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on the scene. Officers from the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office had the authority to force the ship’s management to speed up the off-loading process or face stiff fines. Within an hour, several additional dock workers were onboard, and the off-loading operation was well underway.

At 1400 hours, the hatch covers to the forward cargo hold were cleared; however, a shore-operated crane would have to be rigged to open them because the ship’s equipment was destroyed in the fire.

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(6) The smoke increased as the aft hatch cover seals were released. An aerial master stream was again placed in position; this time, it was not needed.

Firefighters were well aware that opening the cargo hold could cause smoldering fire to rapidly intensify as oxygen entered the confined space. As a precaution, an aerial master stream was positioned directly above the cargo hold. Additionally, a three-inch hoseline was hoisted onboard to supply two 1¾-inch handlines from a gated wye. Water supply was a problem, as there were no hydrants on the same side of the street as the shipping terminal. This would require laying supply lines from the hydrants across the street and stopping and rerouting traffic on a major thoroughfare. The solution was to have the fire boat supply pumping apparatus with its two 3,000-gallon-per-minute (gpm)-capacity pumps.

Opening the hatch covers of the forward hold revealed very light smoke and no smoldering cargo. The Coast Guard ordered the ship’s owner to request another crane with grappling jaws to unload the cargo because manual use of cargo nets would be too time consuming and require dockworkers to enter the smoky cargo hold.

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(7) The crane operator managed to partially open hatch covers as the fire took possession of the aft cargo hold.

Offloading of the aft hatch covers was completed at 2130 hours, and although there were no outward indications of fire in the hold, a master stream and handlines were again positioned as a crane was rigged to open the hatch covers.

It’s important to note here that the ship’s fire plans and the information provided by the ship’s crew indicated that the forward and aft cargo holds were interconnected; consequently, oxygen entering through the open forward hatch could possibly intensify a smoldering fire in the aft cargo hold.

As mentioned earlier, MacGregor hatch covers have a watertight seal that is tightened with cams that are rotated by use of a large spanner-type wrench; several of these devices would have to be released before the aft hatch covers could be opened. Firefighters would soon learn that breaking this watertight seal would awaken a sleeping dragon.

As dockworkers loosened the cams sealing the hatch covers, light smoke began issuing from the broken seal. Soon the smoke increased in volume and became darker. As conditions deteriorated, firefighters equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus took over the task. As the fire in the cargo hold intensified, paint on the deck and hatch covers began to blister, necessitating handlines to cool the hot steel. This had become a difficult situation because firefighters could not direct streams into the cargo hold until the cams sealing the hatch covers were released and the hatch covers were opened. Eventually, companies were successful in releasing enough cams to allow a skilled and determined crane operator to partially open two sections of hatch covers, allowing streams to penetrate the cargo hold and cool bulkheads adjoining the ship’s cabins and engine room. Efforts to stop extension were, again, successful; fire never spread beyond the cargo holds. Throughout the fire, the engine room equipment remained operating. This was a valuable asset because it allowed the operating pumps to move ballast water to correct a dangerous list caused by the accumulating water from handlines and master streams. It took several hours before the fire was brought under control and several days to overhaul and offload the ship.


There are important lessons to be learned from this fire. First, the U.S. Coast Guard is a very valuable resource that has the authority to get things done. We should have requested its presences earlier in the incident. Second, firefighters relied too heavily on just one crane and operator, which became unusable when its cable snagged an immovable hatch cover and could not be released. Third, the department needs to explore the feasibility of flooding cargo holds, storage, and machine spaces with carbon dioxide delivered by a tanker truck.

This fire also reinforced some lessons taught in Miami-Dade’s Marine Firefighting Training Program. First, cooling decks and bulkheads surrounding the fire compartment are a top priority. In this case, companies were successful in keeping the fire from spreading beyond the cargo holds. Second, familiarity with vessels, locating and reading ships’ fire plans, helps firefighters to reach a fire on a lower deck or, in this case, know that their access was extremely limited. Third, working with the ship’s crew helps firefighters to use the ship’s systems and equipment. At this fire, members of the Marine Services Bureau worked with the ship’s chief engineer to pump ballast to correct a dangerous list. Fourth, this fire demonstrated the importance of being prepared for a sudden change in conditions. The fire’s rapid intensification may have caught firefighters by surprise, but they were not caught off guard. At this fire, firefighters prepared themselves for the worst by establishing an adequate water supply, stretching handlines to cool decks and bulkheads, and positioning master stream devices before attempting to open the cargo hatch covers. Additionally, ground ladders were raised to the vessel as an alternate means of egress in case firefighters could not reach the ship’s gangway to escape.

BILL GUSTIN, a 36-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department’s officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies. Gustin is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.


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