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Boat Tech Guide: Fire Extinguishers

Automatic Fire Extinguishers - Updated November 2008
by Chuck Husick

Any fire on a boat must be considered an immediate threat to the safety of the vessel and the lives of the occupants. Everything possible must be done to speed detection and suppression of a fire. Fortunately we can equip even small boats with highly effective automatic fire extinguishing systems.

Although not required by law for most recreational vessels, the very great safety advantages provided by automatic fire extinguishing systems make them a must have for the engine or generator compartment of any boat. An automatic system will detect and respond to an overheat condition (temperature in excess of 165(deg)F) before the development of the flames and smoke that normally announce the fact that something has gone terribly wrong. A remote indicating and alarm panel both verifies that the system is charged and ready for operation and will notify the crew should the system be automatically activated, ensuring that follow-on fire emergency action is taken without delay.

The automatic extinguishing systems for unoccupied engine and machinery compartments use a chemical fire suppressant, FE-241, that when present in sufficient concentration interrupts the combustion process. For this reason, the size of the extinguisher must be matched to the volume of the compartment to be protected. The discharge of FE-241 into a gasoline engine compartment will normally shut the engine down, simultaneously eliminating a likely source of the fire or overtemperature condition and preventing a still running engine from drawing in additional oxygen containing air. Diesel engines may continue to run even in the presence of the extinguishing agent and should be equipped with an auxiliary electrically operated engine shut-down device.

Remember, any fire on a boat is a critical emergency condition and justifies an immediate mayday call on the radio even as the crew reaches for fire extinguishers and everyone dons their PFDs. DO NOT THINK YOU CAN FIGHT THE FIRE FIRST AND CALL MAYDAY ONLY IF YOU CANNOT BRING IT UNDER CONTROL. THE FIRE MAY MAKE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO USE THE RADIO. HAVE EVERYONE PUT ON A LIFE JACKET AND MOVE UPWIND AWAY FROM THE SOURCE OF THE SMOKE. A few moments thought about the damage a fire can do should be sufficient to make you want to have the best and most complete fire detection and suppression system available.

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