We shouldn’t need to hear tragic stories of boat fire to scare us into taking the possibility seriously, but often that’s the case. The horrific and sad story of the dive boat fire of the MV Conception that went up in smoke while anchored in the Santa Cruz Islands last September should be a wake-up call for everyone.
Some boaters might think that was a large commercial vessel with crew and passengers, and not like their boat. The Conception went ablaze while anchored with everyone aboard asleep, which many boaters reading this article do frequently. Are you prepared to handle this type of on-board emergency? Crucial questions boaters should ask are:
- If a fire broke out on my boat, would I be alerted quickly?
- Do I have the equipment and knowledge to extinguish fires fast?
- Do I know how to escape and abandon the vessel in the event of an out-of-control fire, especially from sleeping quarters below deck?
These questions should be answered and become part of vessel safety drills that you review and rehearse regularly.
Most boat fires begin as electrical fires. Many boats’ electrical panels are located in a companionway at or near the stairs, or near the doorway leading out of the boat. These fires could potentially block obvious exit points from sleeping quarters below deck.
Aboard our boat, Liberdade, we subscribe to the philosophy, “There is a point in the life of every problem when it’s big enough to see, but still small enough to do something about.” This certainly applies to the real potential and devastating consequences of an on-board fire. With prevention as the primary goal, regular inspections for loose or corroded electrical components is a critical first step to take.
Next, early awareness of a fire gives you the opportunity to extinguish it before it gets out of control. Smoke detectors effectively alert you to fires. We accept them as standard in homes and businesses where they save countless lives, often by alerting people to the smoke before actual flames break out.
Currently no standards require smoke detectors to be installed on recreational boats for personal use, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. For the cost and ease of installation, smoke detectors are the least expensive fire safety insurance you can buy.
Selection & Placement Are Key
There are no smoke detectors made specifically for marine applications; however, battery-powered household units are perfectly acceptable for a boat and are easily installed. Many come with non-replaceable batteries with a 10-year life. Some units still require you to put in new batteries every year.
Whichever you select, a conservative policy suggests replacing the units every five years. Some come with trouble-shooting technology that sounds an alert if the unit detects a malfunction, but you should test, inspect and clean units on a regular basis for proper function. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for each of these steps.
Smoke detectors utilize two different technologies: ionization and photoelectric. Ionization technology is generally more sensitive than photoelectric at detecting small particles often produced in greater amounts by rapidly starting fires. Photoelectric technology is generally more sensitive than ionization at detecting smoldering fires, which may smolder for hours before bursting into flame. In reading expert sources, you will get varying opinions as to which is best for application aboard a boat.
For maximum protection, select a unit equipped with dual ionization and photoelectric sensors to detect fast burning and smoldering fires quickly. Some smoke detectors also come with carbon monoxide (CO) sensors. These should not replace properly installed marine specific CO detectors but instead serve as added protection. All smoke detectors should meet the UL217 standard.
Placement is as important as the type. Smoke detectors should be placed in all machinery spaces, sleeping cabins and electrical cabinets. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for proper placement on ceilings or walls, to avoid dead spots within a room that could be void of smoke.
Charging lithium-ion batteries in phones, computers and personal devices has caused numerous fires in recent years. Place an extra smoke detector above areas where you often charge these devices. It’s not unreasonable to have as many as seven to 10 smoke detectors on a medium-sized cruising boat.
Some smoke detectors communicate wirelessly between units, sounding all of them when one unit detects smoke. You can name each unit and enable them all to announce which one sensed smoke. Advanced detectors also link to an app on a smart phone via Wi-Fi, notifying you of an alarm if you’re away from the boat.
Smoke detectors are one part of a fire safety plan aboard your boat. Fire extinguishers, both permanently mounted and handheld units, are just as essential and required by Coast Guard standards. Evacuation plans, written out, discussed and rehearsed regularly, are also critical for safe boating. Take time to educate yourself and family members about a complete fire safety plan aboard your boat.