Crew endure heat and smoke during fire simulation training in their STCW courses. But the reality of being onboard in tight quarters, with limited exits as temperatures climb above 1,000 degrees challenges even professional land-based firefighters.
“I tell my guys that engine room and below deck fires can be some of the most dangerous types of fires they’ll fight today,” said Battalion Chief Joe Murton of Broward Sheriff Fire and Rescue in South Florida.
As the number of yachts grows, so will fire incidents and firefighters who will battle them when a yacht is at the dock. In response, there are many people who want to better prepare with training and communication between crew and emergency responders.
Capt. Stephen Fleming agreed and participated in a training session with West Palm Beach Fire Rescue in November. Fleming opened S/Y Paraiso, a 108-foot Alloy Yacht, to the squad to learn how fighting megayacht fires is different from structure fires.
Fleming and several other captains walked about 15 firefighters through their engine rooms, companionways and galleys on several yachts at Rybovich in West Palm Beach, Fla., on the final day of a three-day training event specifically designed for megayachts.
The firefighters learned theory and practical application and trained in full gear in a live burn simulator before going onboard with crew during the event organized by Chartis (AIG), Resolve Maritime Academy and Rybovich.
Fleming said both firefighters and crew learned a few things and feel more prepared.
“It’s a two-way thing because we spend most of our time at the docks,” Fleming said. “We really would be relying on these guys.”
That’s why the firefighters at the seminar on the final day paid close attention to details while on the yachts.
“They were quite interested in our fire detection systems, alarms, fire safety plans and how to access a yacht,” Fleming said of the firefighters at the training, several of whom had never been onboard a yacht.
“They usually use things like chainsaws and hack down doors,” Fleming said. “We educated them about how to get in through skylights and hatches by teaching them how they are dogged down and locked.”
Fleming and the firefighters discussed armored, storm-proof and impact resistant glass on yachts and how that is not an efficient entrance for firefighters. They talked about how putting a water hose in to put out the fire presents stability concerns.
“We explained if you pump in, you need to pump out,” Fleming said, “although there are certain compartments that can flood and not compromise the vessel.”
On the previous day of the seminar, firefighters had suited up for a simulated megayacht fire in the training vessel, Gray Manatee, at Resolve in Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale.
Afterward, training manager Thomas Jones debriefed the firefighters about the yacht scenarios they encountered. The simulated main fire was in the engine room and the crew onboard spoke Spanish.
“It’s a real possibility to run into a variety of languages on a yacht, a real language barrier,” Jones said to the team.
There were two missing “people”, an engineer and a minor, and the squad did not know where they were and could not see in the smoke.
“This is where we need someone to stay with us on the dock, an incident commander with a diagram, maybe the captain or engineer,” Jones said. “We need someone that knows his vessel in the dark.
“It is imperative to have help with shut offs, ventilation and control panels,” Jones said. “And that person can give us the current stage incident report. We need to know what they have done, if the CO2 or halon has been deployed, and if we need to recharge.”
Yacht fire plans are of vital importance, Jones said. They include the yacht’s layout and are located in a marked watertight enclosure outside the deckhouse. These plans are usually found on flag state compliant vessels.
The firefighters also learned the confined space and high temperatures used more of their personal resources.
“A big concern is air management and air consumption, because yachts may have multiple decks,” Jones said to the tired team that had just trained in such conditions.
“The fatigue level is an issue,” he said. “You exerted a lot of energy and then your adrenaline crashes.”
The simulated fire was not quickly extinguished because a firefighter was missing due to poor radio communication. Another example of a problem, Jones said, communication equipment malfunctions are always possible.
The search team had searched the crew mess and quarters, found a hatch open and found a “baby.” At the same time, the tactical crew entered the engine room, but had orders to hold on the attack on the fire until the search could be completed for the “engineer”. Radio communication was still unclear and time was wasting.
Finally the “engineer” was found and the team could shut off power and ventilation to contain the fire.
“But not all yachts can shut off ventilation,” Jones said, citing another area of concern. “Shipboard firefighting has nuances.”
The simulation was held for land-based firefighters and not attended by Battalion Chief Murton.
But, as an expert on shipboard fires in Port Everglades, he explained by phone some specifics onboard yachts.
A big concern is that their fires reach dramatically higher temperatures because of confined spaces, water-tight compartments and void areas, to name a few, he said.
“Because areas like engine rooms retain heat, the entire atmosphere contains heat,” Murton said. “It’s not like a structure fire. It conducts heat and the next deck can catch fire because of the heat in such confined space.
“Ventilation is a much bigger issue on yachts,” he said. “There is less heat dissipation, because they don’t have a lot of openings.”
Murton said firefighters try to fight fire laterally instead of going down into confined spaces.
“But with yachts, that may not be possible,” Murton said. “We may have to go down stairs and that is more dangerous.”
Yachts often contain toxic products and materials and fuel in the tens of thousands of gallons. And they are often in a marina in proximity to other yachts, with a serious threat of fire moving to other vessels.
Although yacht crew are trained to prevent fires and to do their best if one starts, there is a point where they have to put personal safety first. And if the yacht is at the dock, that’s where land-based firefighters may take-over.
When a boat fire sends crew off the yacht, they can still help. When emergency responders are on the scene at the docks, crew are integral with information.
By explaining the yacht to firefighters who have never been onboard, crew can explain locations of passengers, exits, toxins and things that could explode or cause other problems. Crew can share the yacht’s fire plan and stand by to answer any boating questions firefighters may have, even if the question is “Which side is starboard?”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.