The alarm sounds! The call comes in for a fire onboard a vessel in your district. Are you ready? In most cases, the answer would be no. Most fire departments have not had the training to safely conduct major fire operations at a vessel fire. In a recent case, the fire department chief officer responded to the scene of a major vessel fire and asked, “What do I do now?” This is not the time to be asking this question.

A majority of firefighters not trained in shipboard firefighting think of a vessel fire in the same way as a structure fire. However, vessels are basically miniature cities floating on the water. They are a fuel storage farm, a power plant with high voltage, a multistory hotel, a restaurant, and a warehouse with all kinds of commodities—all in one. And, we should mention also that there is an obstacle course throughout the vessel.

Shipboard firefighting is more than putting the “wet stuff on the red stuff.” Although it is true that some tactics used in structural firefighting can be applied in many cases of shipboard firefighting, there are tactics specific to shipboard scenarios that must be learned. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1405, Guide for Land Based Fire Fighters Who Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, provides guidance in training firefighters for shipboard fires.


As most firefighters know, one of the first things you do at a structure fire is ventilate. This most likely would not be an option at a vessel fire, especially if the fire is in the engine room. Imagine standing on the roof of a four-story building with one steel-encased stairwell down to the basement and only one door present at the roof. Now imagine that the basement has several feet of diesel fuel burning and the only way into the area is to properly open that door and head down that stairwell filled with superheated gases. That is what it generally is like trying to enter an engine room that is burning out of control onboard a vessel.

Whether to use solid bore nozzles/streams or variable nozzles has been the subject of much debate. Technically, either will suffice during a shipboard fire. But one thing is certain: Going to a fog stream inside a vessel can make those inside feel like steamed lobsters. You will almost instantaneously regret going to a fog stream and will learn that lesson the hard way, probably with several steam burns to drive the point home.

Case in point: During our training courses, firefighters usually have the opportunity to try to extinguish an interior fire using the firefighting methods they use for structural firefighting. In most cases, the team does a hasty retreat as soon as the members attempt to extinguish the fire because they attempt to use techniques designed for a structural fire. If they try to use a medium to wide fog pattern to keep themselves cool or attempt to use a continued stream on the fire, they will generally end up producing more steam than they were hoping for. The compartments will rapidly fill with steam. We all know what happens when you put water on an extremely hot piece of metal. The same principle applies here, only on a larger scale. We then take the firefighters back into the facility and show them how to extinguish the fire using the proper techniques and minimal quantities of water.


One thing to remember is that a vessel is made of steel; therefore, a compartment on fire is similar to an oven. It radiates the heat back into the center of the compartment, unlike a structure fire, which tends to absorb the heat. Using minimal water is important. More than a few vessel fires have been extinguished not through firefighter extinguishment but by the vessel’s rolling or sinking as a result of applying so much water. A basic rule of thumb for all officers in charge (OIC) is that once you start to flow water on or in the vessel, you need to start pumping the water off somehow. Most fire officers don’t realize they have a stability problem until it is too late. They then have to rush and try to get their personnel off the vessel before it sinks or rolls over. A vessel normally will not roll over slowly. It will start to list (lean) to one side and then abruptly roll.

Trying to counteract a listing vessel by moving deck materials, counterflooding, and so on can capsize a vessel because of “free surface effect,” the unimpeded movement of water inside a vessel. For example, if a vessel is leaning to the port, the water will tend to start to collect there. If you try to counterweight the vessel on the starboard side, the water on the port side will suddenly shift, basically doubling the effect. Now you would have the vessel slowly returning to even keel and suddenly rapidly list to the opposite side at an angle greater than before, and that momentum may roll the vessel. It is highly recommended that a salvage engineer or naval architect with firefighting/salvage experience be present at the command post at marine fires to make recommendations to the OIC.


The unified command system is used at all marine incidents. Anyone who has an interest in the vessel—from the vessel captain to insurance agents for the cargo to the owner’s representative to the U.S. Coast Guard—will be present at the command post. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90) mandates that at incidents involving tank vessels a “Qualified Individual” (QI) will represent the owner’s interest in the unified command system. The QI has the authority and responsibility to obtain resources, personnel, and equipment to extinguish the fire and stop pollution. This individual will contract professional salvage and firefighting companies.

Many individuals have positions of authority in relation to a vessel and its operation. If the fire service is asked to take charge or take action during an emergency incident, ensure that it is the master of the vessel or the QI. If a vessel is deemed to be a total constructive loss—it would cost more to repair than it is worth—and a fire officer has accepted responsibility for the vessel, the vessel owners may abandon the vessel, and the fire service and local government may find that they now “own” the vessel along with the salvage bills and removal and incident damages. Be very careful of what responsibility you take on.

Do not rely on the U.S. Coast Guard to provide firefighting personnel at the scene. Coast Guard personnel, while highly trained in shipboard firefighting, more than likely will not respond to a vessel fire to assist in extinguishment. They have their own vessels to protect. The U.S. Coast Guard will be represented at the fire scene by the captain of the port (COTP) or a representative. The COTP’s main purpose is to ensure that the environment, port, other vessels, and seaways are protected from further damage. The COTP has the authority to override any decision the fire department, captain, and owners’ representatives make if he feels that the actions will cause harm. The COTP has the authority to call in a professional marine salvage/firefighting company if he feels the fire department doesn’t have the ability to safely extinguish the fire. Further, the professional marine salvage/firefighting company may respond through the request of a qualified individual. OPA-90 requires that all tank vessels have a salvage/fire company in their response plan. Addition-ally, several states require that all vessels entering their ports have this service. These companies have special equipment, experienced personnel, and lots of foam.


Rely heavily on the crew members in the initial stages to provide information relative to the extent of the fire, its probable cause, its location, the status of the installed firefighting system, and what attempts were made to extinguish the fire. Each company should have a checklist of items for each marine fire.

Do not depend on the crew members to assist in extinguishment. They more than likely have made several attempts to extinguish the fire before calling for assistance and will be beyond assistance as far as firefighting is concerned. If the vessel regularly enters your port and you have done your homework, you will know some of the crew members, the vessel’s layout, the location of the fire plans, the access point, and how to discharge the installed systems. All fire departments with marine responsibilities should try to visit the vessels that routinely visit their port. Many captains may hesitate at first to allow the fire department onboard their vessels for a visit, but if you inform them that you are there to just visit and learn about their ship and not to inspect them, they will permit the visit. Do not inspect the vessel. If you do, word will travel quickly to the other vessels that routinely visit the port, and it will be difficult to gain access for training purposes in the future. The Coast Guard port state control officers routinely make fire and safety inspections.


In most cases involving a large vessel fire, you will initially proceed to a defensive posture. This is a long-standing procedure to contain the fire and to stop it from spreading into other compartments. To accomplish this, set up primary fire boundaries (also known as the hot zone). Primary fire boundaries are set up in the compartments directly surrounding the fire compartment(s). This is known as the “box method.”

Using a one-compartment fire as an example, you would need to staff charged hoses on all four sides of the compartment and in the compartments above and below the fire compartment. The first established boundary should be in the compartment above the fire. Do not put more than one inch of water on the deck above the fire. Maintaining one inch of water above a fire compartment is more than enough to cool the deck. Hence, we have basically contained the fire into that one compartment. Continue to cool the boundaries until the fire has burned itself out, or establish an offensive attack. Ensure that ventilation, fuel, and doors have been closed or shut down.

To put this in perspective with regard to a structure fire, think of a compartment fire onboard a vessel as a structure fire with at least six exposures that must be protected. Larger vessels, such as a cruise ship, have fire zone bulkheads that have been designed to withstand a specified amount of heat and flame for a certain amount time. If these bulkheads are not part of the primary fire boundary, they will be the secondary fire boundary (also known as the warm zone). Secondary fire boundaries are established on complete fire zone bulkheads—bulkheads that run from the bottom of the vessel all the way to the last complete deck, forward and aft of the fire compartment.

After establishing the primary fire boundaries, say you lose one boundary and the fire spreads into this next compartment. You will now reestablish a new primary fire boundary around the compartment that was just lost. As you can see, the primary fire boundaries can move. The secondary fire boundary, since it is established on a complete fire zone bulkhead, is your last defense against allowing the fire to spread beyond the established fire zone.

A rapid intervention team must be on-scene, pier side, and also on the vessel’s waterside. If the Coast Guard is on-scene with a small craft, you may request that it perform rescue operations on the vessel’s waterside.

Establish access to the vessel in at least two locations—one for embarking the vessel and the other for disembarking as well as emergency evacuation if required. You may use the ship’s accommodation ladder for one of these points. Ensure that the accommodation ladder is in good working order and can handle the traffic flow and weight. If ground ladders are used, do not secure them to the vessel, and monitor them for movement as the vessel moves during the incident.

Another method for egress and escape is to position aerial ladders or platform aerials near the vessel. Do not place the aerials against or lock them in place against the vessel. It may be practical at some incidents to stage some equipment onboard the vessel a safe distance from the fire. This will reduce the fatigue on personnel. Contact the Port Authority and request a crane to aid in staging equipment.


Do not rely on your standard fire command radios for communication with personnel onboard the vessel. Communication onboard the vessel may be sporadic at best. Most fire service radios do not operate well within the vessel. You may be forced to use runners to communicate with personnel inside the vessel’s hull. You can position a person onboard the vessel with a radio outside the hull with a runner in full turnout gear and SCBA. Communicate with this person by radio to relay important information to the firefighters inside the vessel. Your standard evacuation call methods will probably not work because firefighters inside the hull will not be able to hear the call. SCBA time may be very short.


In some cases, firefighters entering an engine room to combat a fire ran out of air before even reaching the compartment. SCBA management is crucial onboard a vessel, especially down inside the hull. There are no windows to open to gain fresh air. If possible, stage extra SCBA cylinders near the access points to the fire compartments. This will allow the firefighters to change out cylinders if they run critically low on air. It is recommended that a breathing air control board be used at all fires. On this board, post the individual’s name, the time he went on air, the time of expected low-pressure alarm, and the person’s location. A person must be assigned to monitor the board at all times.

We have barely scratched the surface of shipboard firefighting. Different types of ves-sels require different procedures. For example, fighting a tanker fire is completely different from fighting a fire involving a container vessel. NFPA 1405 discusses general vessel layout and tactics for all types of vessels. Hopefully, this article will stimulate you to assess your department to determine if training in fighting shipboard fires is needed. Get a copy of NFPA 1405 and review it to see if your department meets the guidelines. When requesting a class, ensure that the course, at a minimum, meets NFPA 1405 guidelines.

WAYNE GATCHELL, a retired Navy chief damage controlman, is director of training and lead firefighter at Resolve Fire & Hazard Response, Inc., a maritime, privately owned training center specializing in firefighting, haz mat, and maritime incidents. While in the U.S. Navy, he was stationed on numerous ships and served as fire marshal on the last two. He instructed new Navy personnel in firefighting at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and served two years as rescue captain in a Charlestown (MD) volunteer fire department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from American University and completed numerous courses through the University of Maryland Fire Rescue Institute.

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