Fire suppression systems designed to put out a blaze before it turns deadly.
A boat fire demands quick and decisive action since even the beginnings of a fire can create poisonous smoke and cause health problems for passengers. Having a fire suppression system in your engine room, smoke detectors in enclosed cabins, and passengers who know how to react to a boat fire can mean the difference between life and death. “In the event of a fire, it is not uncommon to panic,” says Steve Ellis Jr., Sea-Fire Marine’s marketing director, a leading marine fire-suppression equipment manufacturer. “Having a fire safety plan and familiarizing operators/crew members with that plan can be instrumental in the efficient mitigation of a potential fire hazard.”
Fire detection systems alert vessel operators of situations requiring immediate attention. Heat detectors, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors identify potential hazards in the origin stages allowing authorized personnel and equipment to quickly identify the potential hazard before conditions worsen. “It’s important to install a properly sized system and maintain it,” says Keith Larson, Fireboy-Xintex’s vice-president of sales and marketing, another leading manufacturer. “A fixed automatic fire suppression system in the engine room and smoke detectors in the living spaces are needed on larger boats.”
Boats carry fuel, batteries, propane, alcohol, wood, plastic, and fabric, and when these materials burn a specific type of chemical agent fire extinguisher is required to suppress the fire. Here’s a look at the three most common classes of fire aboard recreational boats in the 15 to 60-foot range:
• Class A (ordinary combustibles): Fires are paper, plastic and fiber fires, including cabinets, berths and hatch covers, and synthetic materials like cushion vinyl, foam and fabric covers, and bedding.
• Class B (flammable gases/liquids): Fires are diesel, gasoline and propane fires, and can quickly ignite the rest of the boat. Shut off the source of fuel if possible.
• Class C (electrical equipment): Fires are caused by an electrical problem and can start other classes of fires. Attempt to shut down the electricity first, if safe.
All boats are mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard to have B-I or B-II classification portable fire extinguishers on board, and it’s recommended the extinguishers be mounted in a readily accessible position. A B-I or B-II portable won’t put out a Class A or Class C fire, and upgrading to an ABC classification fire extinguisher is not a huge expense.
Still, fighting a boat fire with a portable extinguisher is a risky endeavor, especially because most fires start in the engine room. The worst thing you can do with an engine room fire is flinging open the engine hatch to let in fresh air. Some boats have 3-inch diameter fire ports into the engine compartment that are large enough to stick the nozzle of a handheld extinguisher inside and spray the agent. It’s not the best solution, but it’s better than nothing.
Fireboy-Xintex and Sea-Fire use clean agents such as HFC227-ea and 3M™ Novec 1230 that leave no residue after discharge, are environmentally responsible and safe to human exposure. Once the clean agent is released, it’s recommended to wait at least 15 minutes for the fire to be completely extinguished. Then you can open the hatch, allow time for the affected area to clear the air and find out where the fire started. If it’s something easily replaced or fixed, then you can make the repair and continue on your way, because the clean agent doesn’t damage your equipment or harm electronic components.
“Both agents, HFC227-ea and 3M™ Novec 1230, are rated for A, B and C fires,” Larson says. “Equipping yourself with a clean agent portable fire extinguisher can cover you and also reduces the mess if you have to use it. A fire port is supposed to be used with a properly sized clean agent portable so it floods the compartment. Most portables are streaming agents, i.e. dry chemical, and will not extinguish a fire on the opposite side of the engine.”
Any boat with an engine room should be equipped with a clean agent fixed fire suppression system and engine shutdown system. Automatic pre-engineered suppression systems are particularly ideal, providing around-the-clock protection for enclosures of a pre-determined volume. Sea-Fire’s pre-engineered fire suppression system can accommodate enclosures ranging up to 1,800 cubic feet in volume, while Fireboy-Xintex makes pre-engineered systems up to 4,000 cubic feet. “Once the enclosure reaches a specified temperature range, generally 175-225°F, the system will automatically discharge the clean agent suppressant extinguishing the fire,” Ellis explains. “Manual activation of the system via a remote pull-cable assembly is also a highly recommended and available option. The engine shutdown system comes into play upon activation of the fire suppression system. This module will automatically shut down blowers, dampers and engines to ensure total enclosure flooding and effective timely suppression of the fire.”
Smoke detectors in enclosed cabins also give you an early warning, and while the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t require them, the American Boat & Yacht Council and the National Marine Manufacturers Association recommend them. Marine-grade smoke detectors are available and feature more rugged components than smoke detectors made for home use.
Education of your crew and proper boat safety procedures are also critical. For example, before starting the engine, open the hatch and run the bilge blower to ensure you don’t smell fuel. While adults may know this, a teenager learning how to operate the boat may not. It’s also prudent to be extra vigilant around the fuel dock since spills during fueling do occur. And during the summertime fireworks season, it’s important not to play with anything that can emit sparks or flame aboard a boat since you never know where those sparks may end up.
— By Doug Thompson, Southern Boating Magazine December 2016