A take-anywhere fire crew
Lookout! Issue 28, April 2013
Fire broke out on the 14 metre commercial vessel after hydraulic oil from a burst line started spraying onto the battery bank. Smelling smoke coming from the engine room, the master shut down the engine and blocked off the engine room vents. He then opened the engine room hatch, but was confronted with thick smoke and flames. The fire had cut power to his radio, but he was able to make an emergency call to a nearby vessel using a satellite phone.
By this time the blocked vent ports and closed engine room hatch appeared to have suffocated the fire. When the smoke had cleared, the master re-entered the engine room, sprayed the battery bank with a foam extinguisher and started work on makeshift repairs.
However, once the vessel began heading back to port, a second and more substantial engine room fire broke out. Again the master blocked the engine room ports, but damage from the previous fire meant he could not shut down the engine or turn off the hydraulic pump. The running pump was feeding the fire with 60 litres of hydraulic fuel per minute.
The master set off the fixed-fire suppression system, which immediately extinguished the fire. Had it not worked, the vessel would almost certainly have been a total loss.
- The suppression system cost about 1.5 percent of the vessel’s estimated value, and was not a requirement on the vessel, but an additional safety precaution thought prudent by the master. It proved its worth by saving the vessel, and preventing the crew from being forced to abandon ship.
- Burning hydraulic oil mist is exceptionally dangerous, and can produce toxic gases in combination with burning batteries. The master placed himself at considerable risk in entering the engine room to discharge the foam extinguisher. Fire extinguishers are effective only on small and contained fires. Remote extinguisher ports are a safer discharge route.
- The vessel was not fitted with any automatic early fire detection system. The engine room hatch had to be opened to check for fire, which instantly introduced enough oxygen to cause the heated fuel oil to burst into flames.
- Had a battery bank been fitted in the wheelhouse to supply communications equipment, the master would not have lost contact during the fire. He was, however able to call a nearby vessel using a satellite phone.
- Once there has been a fire on board, there is a greatly increased risk of a second fire. Take precautions and monitor the situation.
For more information, see the September 2010 Lookout! safety feature on fire fighting.