Study Topics
Boats in Action Section Quiz Site Map
Dealing With Fires
Fighting Fires

Fight a fire yourself if and only if:
  • It's small and confined to the immediate area where it started. Generally, if you don't get to it
    within two minutes, you're too late.
  • You have a way out and can fight with your back to the exit.
  • Your extinguisher is rated for the class of fire at hand. (If you bought ABC units, you don't have to
    worry about this.) Only Class A fires can be extinguished with water.
  • You are confident that you can operate your extinguisher effectively: Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire.
    Hold the unit upright. Sweep from side to side at the base, or use a series of short blasts aimed at the base. Check for glowing or smoldering embers and repeat the procedure if "flashback" occurs.
  • If you have the slightest doubt about whether you can contain the fire, don't even try. Your first concern is the
    safety of the people aboard. Notify someone immediately of your situation and location before the fire burns through the battery cables or forces you off the boat.
NOTE: Burning fiberglass is extremely hot and gives off noxious fumes.
If fiberglass is burning, get off the boat immediately.

Portable Fire Extinguisher Maintenance:
  • Inspect once a month, more often if exposed to weather.
  • Have the unit weighed annually to verify it's fully charged. Gauges fail often enough that they cannot always
    be relied on. Twice a year, remove unit from bracket, turn upside down and shake to loosen any dry chemical compacted at the bottom.
  • Recharge or replace after any use. Recharges run $15-25. Inexpensive units can be replaced for about
    the same amount.
  • Never check a unit by partially discharging it. Remaining pressure in canister can leak out over time.
  • Have a full maintenance check annually by a qualified technician; see the Yellow Pages under "Fire Extinguishers." A more economical method: weigh the unit your- self every year, and replace it every few years.

A Subtle, but Costly, Distinction:

A 42' powerboat was cruising offshore when a crew member reported a strange smell coming from the engine compartment. The owner grabbed a dry chemical extinguisher from the galley on his way to the enclosed compartment, opened the access door, and was immediately driven back by smoke. He tried to direct the stream of dry chemical inside the compartment, but he could not see beyond the smoke to locate the source of the fire. By then the fumes had also engulfed the main saloon and he was driven back. From the cockpit he saw flames coming out of the engine compartment's starboard ventilation ducts, so he directed another dry chemical extinguisher into the duct openings; the fire died momentarily but quickly resumed and grew rapidly. It soon became apparent that the vessel would have to be abandoned. It burned to the waterline. (Claim 9708770C.)

The same dry chemicals that are so effective in a boat's cabin, aren't much use when a fire breaks out in the engine compartment. The reason has to do with how the two types of fires are fought.

Accounts of engine fires typically began with a warning - a burning smell, a loss of engine power, or even smoke trailing after the boat. If someone then opened the engine hatch to check out the trouble, he or she was usually overwhelmed immediately by flames and smoke.

Fires need two things: fuel and oxygen. Opening an engine compartment hatch to look for a fire is like

throwing gasoline on hot coals; it fans the fire with a
rush of fresh oxygen.

The solution is to leave the hatch closed and fight the fire either with a fixed extinguisher in the engine compartment or with a portable extinguisher discharged through a fire port " (a small opening into the engine compartment) on deck, which is why dry chemical extinguishers of any class are inappropriate. Blindly spraying a chemical extinguisher through a fire port does little or nothing to stop an engine fire because the chemical isn't being directed toward the base of the flames. A gaseous extinguisher, on the other hand, extinguished the fire by effecting the oxygen supply. The same extinguisher that wasn't effective in the wide-open spaces of a boat's cabin will be much more effective in a cramped engine compartment.

For this reason, among others, the ABYC recommends
that either a portable gaseous extinguisher be provided near (outside) the engine compartment or a fixed gaseous extinguishers be used inside the engine compartment.
In the event of a fire, either option eliminates the need to
open the hatch.