The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the overall safety and security of navigable waters within the boundaries of the United States. Fire protection on and along waterways is an important part of its mission. Local fire departments, however, are expected to perform the primary fire suppression function, within the limits of their training and resources, aboard vessels in their jurisdictions. It is the Coast Guard’s policy to assist fire services; but, when possible, the command of the firefighting operation remains with the local fire chief.

The authority the Coast Guard exercises over firefighting operations varies with the complexity of the incident and the local fire department’s ability to effectively fight a shipboard fire. The Coast Guard will take command of firefighting operations if, in its estimation, the local fire department is incapable, for whatever reason, of controlling a vessel fire. This action may be necessary to manage an incident that threatens the overall safety and well-being of the port and waterways.

The Coast Guard’s fire suppression capabilities are limited. For example, don’t expect it to supply large quantities of foam or commit its personnel to interior firefighting. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard is a tremendous resource for any land-based fire department that has responsibility for marine fire protection. It can assist in the following areas:

The U.S. Coast Guard responds to a fire in a Honduran freighter off the Florida Keys. It is the type of smaller vessel that can present major challenges for any municipal fire department.

(Photo by Todd Reeves.)

  • Technical assistance. Few fire officers possess sufficient knowledge of vessels and the marine environment to formulate shipboard firefighting strategy on their own. The Coast Guard can provide consultation on the following technical matters: vessel construction, vessel buoyancy and stability, locating and interpreting the ship’s plans, using/ shutting down the ship’s systems, and environmental protection.
  • Facilitate services of outside contractors. The Coast Guard can assist in acquiring services and equipment involving the following areas: environmental protection (i.e., deployment of floating containment booms and absorbent materials); dewatering pumps and equipment; vessel salvage and towing; and removal of fuel, cargo, and hazardous materials from a stricken vessel.
  • Exercise overall authority. The Coast Guard can assist in facilitating operations through its authority to order the movement of vessels, close harbors, control vessel traffic, and resolve conflicts a local fire department may experience in attempting to board a foreign vessel and enlist the cooperation of its crew.
  • Firefighting. All but the smallest of Coast Guard craft are equipped with fire pumps, hose, and a bow monitor for firefighting at sea or supporting a land-based operation from the waterside. Burning vessels often are set adrift by civilians in an effort to prevent the fire from spreading to other boats. Coast Guard craft can control the fire and tow the burning vessel away from exposures. Bow monitors are very useful for cooling hulls from the waterside as well as for protecting exposures.

This year, the Coast Guard will rescue several civilians oft burning vessels and out of the waters off the coast of Florida. Fire departments | should not wait for a marine incident to learn what they can expect from this organization. Its role, capabilities, and limitations should be ascertained through orientation sessions and joint training exercises *

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