Fire. One of the most feared words in a boater’s vocabulary. After all, it’s not like you can simply dial 911 from the water when you see smoke. To survive a fire, you need to be prepared; not only with the required number of fire extinguishers onboard, but knowing how to use them should a fire occur when you are out on the open water.
Fires can start for a number of reasons. Research indicates that over 50% of boat fires are the result of faulty electrical wiring; specifically the chaffing of wires in battery cables and bilge pumps. These types of electrical fires can be extremely hard to extinguish because a shorted wire can reignite easily. Approximately 25% of fires on marine vessels are started by propulsion systems overheating which is usually caused by an obstruction in an intake or the exhaust cooling system. And given the large amounts of gasoline onboard boats, it’s surprising that fuel leaks, the worst type of fire because they are extremely difficult to extinguish, are the source of only 8% of all boat fires.
Since not all fire extinguishers are created equal, it’s important to know that each fire extinguisher designed for use on a marine vessel is marine-rated. Great, but what do the ratings mean? Fire extinguishers are rated A, B, or C which denotes their ability to combat particular classes of fires with the most common marine fire extinguishers being labeled as B:C or A:B:C. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) uses these letters to signify the type of fires the extinguisher is capable of fighting and the numbers to refer to the firefighting capacity relative to other extinguishers.
The US Coast Guard requires boats under 26’ to have one B-I fire extinguisher onboard and boats between 26’ – 40’ to have at least two B-I fire extinguishers onboard. However, if your boat has a USCG approved fire extinguisher system installed, then the individual units may be less.
The USCG’s minimum number of hand-portable fire extinguishers required:
Having the right fire extinguisher is the first step, but knowing how to use it when a fire occurs is of utmost importance, as reading the directions on your extinguisher, after a fire breaks, out will seriously impede your ability to get it under control quickly. If a fire does start while your boat is underway it is recommended that you stop the boat and position it so that the fire is downwind and turn off the fuel supply, if possible, while having everyone quickly put on their lifejackets (PFDs). Simultaneously, grab hold of your fire extinguisher and control the fire. A good way to remember how to fight small fires with a portable fire extinguisher is the PASS method:
P= Pull the pin
A= Aim the fire extinguisher
S= Squeeze the two handles together
S= Sweep across the base of the flames
Portable fire extinguishers are designed to last for approximately 10 to 12 seconds of use so it’s extremely important that you sweep back and forth at the fire’s base rather than aiming at the top of the fire and working downward, which has been shown to be instinctual to the uninformed. And given that fires can double in size in less than one minute, it’s important to carry more than one fire extinguisher onboard. It’s also important that everyone onboard knows where the fire extinguishers are located as time is of the essence during an emergency. Therefore, it’s best to mount them in an accessible area, but not near the engine or in a compartment.
The US Coast Guard recommends that marine fire extinguishers should be inspected on a monthly basis to verify that the extinguisher has not been damaged and that it’s full and has not been partially discharged. This may include removing dry chemical fire extinguishers from their brackets and shaking them to make sure the powder is not caked, then turning them upside-down and striking the bottom with a hand or rubber mallet to loosen the powder.
Fires are scary but they don’t have to be disastrous if you are well prepared. To learn more about fire prevention for your type and size of vessel plan to attend a boating safety course conducted by your local US Power Squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary. The lessons learned could possibly save your life and those on your boat!
Happy & Safe Boating!
About the author: Karen has been boating for 25 years and is a Markel boat insurance customer. Her 23’ Chaparral is slipped in the Chain O’Lakes, in northern Illinois, where she and her husband spend as much time as they can during the summer months.