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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Boat Fires and Explosions

Two men recovering after being trapped in boat fire7 News Miami Mon, 31 Mar 2008 4:59 AM PDTMIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Two men are recovering from smoke inhalation after a boat fire kept them trapped inside the hull of their vessel

There is probably nothing more devastating and frightening than a fire on a boat! There is simply no where to go except jump over board. If an explosion occurs the damage is catastrophic. Worse yet, if the fire occurs in a marina, the fire often spreads to surrounding boats.

Fortunately these rarely result in deaths. Although there were 221 fire and explosion accidents in 2006 in the US, there were only 4 deaths.

These types of accidents are divided into two categories, those from fuel and those from other sources. 146 were fuel. 75 were other. Other is usually electrical.

Fuel fires are usually the result of a fuel leak some where in the fuel system. The vapor from the fuel is then ignited by a spark from electrical equipment causing an explosion. This is why it is extremely important to make sure your fuel, electrical and ventilation systems comply with USCG, ABYC or ISO standards, all of which are similar. ( http://newboatbuilders.com/ ) It is also important to check the system regularly. A system pressure test is a good way to make sure there are no leaks. This can be done by most marine service providers. Electrical systems should be inspected at least annually, and ventilation should be checked as well.

To prevent fires, adequate ventilation of engine and fuel tank compartments is required. (http://newboatbuilders.com/pages/vent.html ) Making sure electrical equipment is ignition protected so that it will not produce sparks is vital. http://newboatbuilders.com/pages/elect.html

Electrical fires are equally as devastating. Corrosion is an electrical system's worst enemy. Even a correctly installed system can develop corrosion at connections which results in high resistance and heat. Heat is what starts the fire, but the real culprit is bad connections, either from loose connections or corroded connections. Many fires result from the shore power inlet plug corroding or loosening while the boat is sitting idle over the winter months. Boat owners should check their boat frequently. They should not only look for flooding and other problems but especially if they have a heater on board that is left running, they should make sure the power cord is not loose and not heating up. They should pull the plug and check the conditions of the metal prongs. Any sign of corrosion or discoloration should be looked into for the cause. The cause may not be on the boat. It could be the shore pedestal. So if everything on the boat checks out have the marina check the shore pedestal.

Last but not least, what do you do in the case of a fire? It depends on the situation. Very minor fires can be fought with a fire extinguisher. But engine room fires require more effective equipment such as an automatic fixed fire fighting system. Electrical fires, if caught quickly, can usually be stopped simply by turning off the power or disconnecting the shore cord. However, if any of these fail the best action is to abandon ship. If you are underway and have time, put out a mayday and don't forget to give your position. If you have an EPIRB you can activate it and it will automatically send out a distress signal. If you are at the dock, get off the boat and call the fire department. If possible move other boats away from the boat on fire. Sometimes it is actually possible to tow the burning boat out of the marina, but leave this to the Coast Guard, Marine Police or fire department.

The best way to put out a fire on a boat is sink it. It probably will sink anyway if the fire is really bad. However, this may also result in pollution from leaking fuel. But once off the boat leave the fire to the professionals to fight.

If you are underway when this occurs, getting off the boat may not be as simple as it sounds. Going into the water may not be a good choice, but it might be the only choice. If you have a dinghy or inflatable it should be mounted in such a way that it can be easily released and put over the side. For offshore boats an inflatable life raft will automatically release itself and inflate. Make sure if you do go over the side you are wearing life jackets. This is why lifejackets must be readily at hand. It is very difficult to put one on in the water so you want it on before you go in.

Most onboard fires do not occur at sea. In fact most occur at the dock or shortly after fueling. So rescue is usually close by. But properly maintaining your boat, checking your fuel and electrical systems will prevent most problems. Knowing what to do and practicing an abandon ship drill will help too.

Stay safe and keep the fun in boating.

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