What Are We Smoking?
Part 2: A smoke alarm is most valuable when a boat is at rest and the crew is relaxing.
By Capt. John McDevitt
Every year there are a number of large marina fires. In 2003 an unattended stove on an occupied vessel led to the destruction of 30 boats in Deland, Florida. Seattle alone has had three major marina fires in the past two years, totaling 60 lost boats and $15 million in damage. Such fires almost always start aboard vessels, and smoke alarms might well have alerted occupants and/or nearby occupants of the pending danger.
You’d think that regulators might respond with a mandate to put inexpensive smoke alarms aboard yachts. But the Coast Guard seems to focus most of its regulatory energy on vessels that are underway, while a smoke alarm is most valuable when a boat is at rest and the crew is relaxing. And the typical municipal fire inspector is interested in marina buildings but rarely sets foot on the dock, let alone on the boats. The NFPA has just passed a smoke alarm requirement (see “Man on a Mission,” this story) but has not gotten critical support from industry leaders like the American Boat and Yacht Council, the National Marine Manfacturers Association, and BoatUS.
An impediment to cautious regulators is the fact that Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which typically backs up safety rules with testing protocols, has not established a specific marine standard for smoke alarms. But let’s look a little deeper: The UL does test RV smoke alarms for extreme temperatures, humidity, vibration, and even salt spray. Way back in the mid-1990’s, the Coast Guard funded a UL study of smoke alarms aboard recreational vessels, including installation and maintenance issues. Test fires were even set aboard derelict vessels. The report noted, “some presently available models successfully completed the tests. Thus it is possible that at least some manufacturers may not need to produce special marine-use models, thus minimizing the costs to the boatbuilders and ultimately to the consumers.”
Smoke alarm technology has only improved since then, yet the Coast Guard—which does require RV-quality alarms on commercial passenger vessels with sleeping quarters—has never made a recommendation to the boating public based on that study, and UL never initiated a smoke alarm marine listing.
Next page > Part 3: A personal experience recently strengthened my convictions. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.