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Marine Firefighting for the Land-based Firefighter
Shore/Ship Interface
Part II - What's On Board?

Some observations on firefighting on board vessels in port, and Fire Departments' relationships with ships, seafarers and Port Authorities.

This article aims at an overview of what to expect when visiting a merchant vessel for the purpose of pre-fire planning. It is hoped that the readers' first visit to a typical vessel will not be when there is a fire. Normal water safety precautions such as the wearing of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) should be observed when on or near the water.

Going aboard
On boarding, we can tell a lot from the overall housekeeping standards, and on meeting the officers and crew can assess whether we will be assisting them, them assisting us, or whether they will be more of a liability. As we board, by gangway, pilot or accommodation ladder, we can assess the logistics of responding. Should we stage on the dock or on board? Will aerials be of use? Can we establish at least two methods of access/egress? Are there cranes nearby to aid in landing personnel and equipment on board? Is there repair work under way? Are there exposures in the form of other vessels? Can they be moved? Should the involved vessel be moved? Have fixed systems, if fitted, been discharged?

These are not always decisions for the first responding unit, but information can be gathered which may be of value to Command at a later stage of the response.

Hazards on board include extremely confined spaces, steep ladders and stairs, heights, tripping hazards, slippery surfaces, extreme heat and, during firefighting, excessive steam generation, high voltages (over 4,000V, 300A), movement of the vessel and loss of communications due to radio "blind spots." Personnel accountability is essential, but your system may be taxed due to the size and type of vessel. Guidelines and flourescence light sticks in different colours may be used to establish safe routes.

The use of nautical terminology should be confined to words in common use at sea - not yacht club jargon. It is not always appreciated that the terms "port; starboard; for'd; midships and aft" when applied to a ship, give an immediate six sector zoning which fits well with ICS (Incident Command System). Add in deck names or numbers and we have a three dimensional model of the vessel which aids in assigning and locating personnel.

Even getting to the dock may be difficult.

Ship's personnel - help or hindrance?
English is close to being an international language, but great care must be taken in communicating to avoid misunderstanding. Fortunately most common nautical terms are easily understood by most seafarers.

Many ship's officers wear uniform, but not all. It is sometimes easy to assume that the ragged looking individual speaking pidgin English is of no value to you, but he may be the Polish, Russian, Korean or Filipino Chief Engineer who is your resident expert on the ship's systems. He (or she) will know the vessel inside out, and can save hours of precious time if the right questions are asked.

Generally, the Chief or Second Engineer are most knowledgeable about the engine room and on board systems. The Chief Officer or Mate knows the deck and cargo best, but on a well run vessel there should be considerable overlap of knowledge. The Bosun (or Boatswain) is the deck "foreman" as the Donkeyman or No. 1 Oiler is for the Engine room.

Fire plans
Over the past ten years we have boarded several dozen deep sea vessels each year in the Port of Vancouver (as part of training delivery), and never have failed to find, unaided, a set of fire plans on each side of the accommodation, as required by IMO. However, the condition of these plans is rarely acceptable. They are usually well protected from the weather, but after getting through the grease and the multi-layered plastic wrapping they are frequently faded and unreadable. Occasionally a set of plans is met with (not necessarily on a new vessel either) which are clear, well drawn, and, best of all, coloured, if necessary by one of the ship's personnel. This greatly facilitates interpretation of the plans, which is not easy, even for mariners. Other plans, such as the General Arrangement, may be of use, as they usually show side elevations and midships cross sections. The good news is that plans are available if you know where to find them: the bad news is that they are not always easy to read.

It is essential to work with vessel personnel. NB: Both the Fire Control Plan and International Shore Coupling (ISC) are well located.

On a well run vessel there will be a clearly marked box on each side of the accommodation, near the gangway. This should contain:

  1. a clear and legible set of the vessel's fire plans (this alone is mandatory), coloured if possible;
  2. a current crew list, identifying those possessing pass keys;
  3. full instructions and location of the vessel's fixed fire fighting systems and fuel shutoffs;
  4. a list of dangerous goods on board, and their location and quantities;
  5. if possible, separate plans of each deck in the accommodation, ideally on Plexiglas. (I notice this becoming more frequent, usually in the form of one plan on each deck level.)

Items 2 to 5 are not mandatory but are recommended. By building a relationship with regular visitors to your port you may encourage such practices. Nearby, there should be a personnel board identifying who is on board. If appropriate, the terminal or dock office should be given a crew list so security (if any) may record who is ashore. There have been many instances of fire fighters searching for crew members who were not on board.

Firefighting on board may be roughly described as "shut down to buy time" as most vessels have fixed systems to handle engine room, and in some cases cargo hold fires. By closing all ventilation openings and shutting off fuel supplies, a lid is placed on the fire. Closing ventilators may be a major task for both fire fighters and ship's personnel. Boundary cooling, that is cooling of the vessel exterior, is not to be underestimated. Many ship fires have been contained and allowed to burn out safely, but it takes time. Seattle Fire achieved a 'stop' with the Manulani fire, i.e. much of the cargo was unburned when the hold was reopened after a week. The military response of "take her out and sink her" is not recommended.

Fixed systems employ either:

  • CO2,
  • foam,
  • Halon,
  • high pressure fog,
  • high expansion foam,
  • dry chemical,
  • sprinklers, or
  • deluge systems.

Some vessels may have several systems. Most systems are a "one shot deal." If more resources are needed means will have to be found for access. For example, some vessel fires have been extinguished by fabricating a connection to a ship's hull to permit application of CO2 from road tankers, e.g. Manulani, August 31 - September 7, 1997, Seattle.

Application of water on board must be strictly controlled. It is interesting that the Indirect Method of Attack for fuel oil fires was largely developed at the US Coastguard Fire Fighting School during 1944/45, aboard the Liberty ship the Gaspar de Portola as described by Lloyd Layman. However, many ship's crews are still less than adequately trained in correct firefighting procedures.

Watertight doors, fire doors and annunciator panels
Depending on the vessel type, there may be a number of watertight doors, and/or fire doors to allow movement through transverse bulkheads. These bulkheads subdivide the vessel so that if part of the hull is holed the ship will still remain afloat. This "sub-division" of the vessel can aid in containing fire in a given zone. Obviously it is not practical to keep these doors closed all the time, especially on passenger vessels, so they may be opened and closed by remote control. This control panel is usually located on the bridge, along with the fire alarm annunciator panel. Even when closed, watertight doors or fire doors may be opened by local override, usually hydraulic.

It is essential that firefighters be aware of how to operate ship's doors and hatches, especially by using the local manual or hydraulic override.

Stability and dewatering
Failure to adequately dewater has led to vessels capsizing, e.g. the Normandie, the Empress of Canada. It is only fair to note that in both these cases the firefight was being won when it had to be abandoned due to loss of stability. The vessels concerned did not immediately capsize, but several hours after evacuation, despite attempts to restore stability, they turned over.

When weights are added to, moved within or removed from a vessel there is a change in the position of the centre of gravity. Ships are remarkably stable but, if the centre of gravity is too high, they may capsize, either through external force or through loss of stability. An example of a vehicle with a high centre of gravity is a cube van carrying meat which is hanging from hooks. The effect of the weight of the meat raises the centre of gravity to the hooks in the roof and such vehicles may topple if a corner is turned too sharply.

The most important aspect of stability relative to water application is called the Free Surface Effect. Space does not permit a full explanation; suffice to say that it causes a virtual rise in the centre of gravity, making the vessel effectively "top heavy" and unstable. To demonstrate, compare the ease of carrying a gallon of water in a pail with carrying a gallon of water in a roasting tray. It is not so much the quantity of water as its location on board (especially if high up) and its freedom to move which causes the effect. The most dramatic recent demonstration of this was the loss of the Estonia on September 28, 1994 with the loss of 903 lives.

The most important aspect of vessel stability when firefighting is to plan water removal before application, and to have the vessel's stability condition monitored with respect to wind and weather. ('Get it off, or get it low.') Booms should be rigged around the vessel to contain water runoff, or if possible have runoff collected in barges. (See environmental issues.) However, be aware that oil pumped overboard may be sucked into the intakes of the vessel or another vessel. This may lead to a worse situation.

When on board, there are more ladders to climb - both up and down, inside and out.

The moving incident
Vessel fires may be referred to as "moving incidents" because it highlights one of the main differences with land-based response. Except for the flow of liquid along the ground, or the risk of exposures, land-based fires generally stay put. On water, the exposures may move, or be moved, as may the involved vessel. Escape of burning fuel may expose vessels, docks or buildings a considerable distance away, as the water borne flames drift away.

Moorings, the ropes attaching the vessel to the dock, are crucial. They must be tended as conditions change. They may burn through, or break if the wind rises. The windage on the side of a large vessel is not to be underestimated.

Fire Wires
The intent of rigging fire wires or warps, or emergency towing wires, is to facilitate movement of the vessel by tugs without the necessity of putting people on board to rig lines. Wires are preferred because they do not burn, although ropes are better than nothing. The Jupiter incident might have been easier dealt with if wires were pre-rigged.

Perhaps 50% of vessels that we have boarded have fire wires (emergency towing wires) ready, and less than half of this number have rigged them properly. By this I mean that although they are made fast to bitts fore and aft, they do not have a bight on deck with a lanyard to adjust the level of the eye above the water as the vessel's draft changes. This also means that in the event of a tug taking the strain there will be no slack to give a better lead.

Working with local port authorities can lead to better pre-fire planning on the part of visiting vessels.

International Shore Coupling (ISC)-- resource or relic?
Many seafarers have been led to believe that in the event of a fire in port, with the ship's fire pumps disabled, the local fire department would respond, use the ISC and, having pressurized the fire main, would fight the fire aboard. The fire department would use the ship's equipment? In refuting this assumption we can do no better than to quote Mr. Frank Rushbrook in his excellent book "Fire Aboard" in which he stated "...the fire fighting equipment -- particularly the hose--to be found aboard ship is such that a professional fireman would be reluctant to find himself compelled to rely on it to deal with a serious fire emergency. Mildewed hose, ancient branch-pipes with hand-control nozzles stiff to operate or leaking at the joints-- (page 550)." It is not suggested that this would apply to all vessels, but even if the fire fighting appliances are in perfect order, no one wishes to use equipment with which he is unfamiliar.

Many units in the Fire Service have been dutifully carrying their part of the ISC for years without any clear idea of its intended use. The use of ISC is limited to either a) charging a fixed system on board from shore water, such as when a vessel is in drydock; b) charging a sprinkler or deluge system; or c) pressurizing the fire main to facilitate the firefighting efforts of the ship's personnel. Fire departments should consider using ship's equipment for boundary cooling, but not for direct attack. Pressurizing the ship's fire main may lead to flooding if the main is ruptured or the water pressure too great for the pressure relief valve. Most fire departments would rapidly run sufficient hose for their needs, and not waste time with the ISC. It has its place, but it is not the universal remedy in which we have been led to trust.

Below - reading a fire control plan.

Water supply
Water supply may seem obvious when ships and boats float on water, but it is not always simple. Salt water may be pumped without harm provided the pumps are well flushed with fresh water after use. However, the dock may be too high to allow drafting, or the tide may be low. Floating pumps can be of use in marina fires, but are of little use if the water is choppy. Anyone who visits even a medium sized merchant vessel will realize that just to get a water supply on deck by any means other than the ship's pumps or an aerial apparatus (if alongside) is difficult.

Fireboats and tug or towboats can supply water, particularly on the off-dock side of the vessel, for boundary cooling. Careful pre-fire planning can determine the potential water supply available. Pre-fire planning on vessels which visit your area regularly may pay off should a fire occur while in port. Firefighters visiting a vessel may help raise the awareness of the ship's officers and crew which may lead to enhanced fire prevention and no fires! Pre-fire plans for some Ro-Ro vessels have identified a need for hose lays of 700 feet - and that is after a water supply has been laid on board.

In Part III we will address resources and training and will supply references for those interested in further study or training.

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