|This Could Happen to You|
Part 2: Carry a suitable fire extinguisher for the fire you’ll be faced with.
By Elizabeth A. Ginns — April 2003
Familiarize yourself with the type of fire that you might be faced with, and outfit your boat with a suitable fire extinguisher. The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) four fire classifications are A, B, C, and D (see diagram, below). Class A fires involve any solid combustible material (i.e. wood, paper, and fabric) that leaves an ash behind. Class B fires refer to flammable liquids, including gasoline, diesel fuel, paint thinner, teak oil, etc. They typically produce a thick, black, oily smoke. Class C fires are electrically based, and Class D fires involve burning metals and other substances that require special handling, beyond a standard fire extinguisher.
Carry a suitable fire extinguisher for the fire you’ll be faced with. Fire extinguishers are labeled according to the class of fire they extinguish. If you use the wrong extinguisher, you’ll only make matters worse, so buying an extinguisher with a multiclass rating is a good investment.
Also pay attention to the numerical rating. On a Class B extinguisher, the one that the Coast Guard requires on all boats up to 65 feet, the number represents the square footage of fire the unit can reasonably extinguish. Think it’s overkill that the Coast Guard requires boats between 40 and 65 feet in size to keep three fire extinguishers onboard? Think again. A single B-1 extinguisher can handle a one square foot oil fire, roughly twice the size of a mouse pad. Keith Valpreda, a retired Coast Guard veteran with more than 20 years of experience in firefighting and damage control, points out, “Independent tests have shown that the U.S. Coast Guard minimum is verging on inadequate.” The NFPA has developed standards that exceed the Coast Guard’s regulations, so you should consider the Coast Guard regulations only as a starting point.
Have a qualified technician check your fire extinguishers once a year. If you have multiple fire extinguishers serviced at the same time, you’ll usually get a discount, so encourage boaters from your marina or yacht club to join in; you’ll promote safety and save money. Prices range from about $6 each for 50 or more; servicing one at a time normally runs around $20 per extinguisher.
Even if you have your extinguishers checked annually, examine them periodically for signs of wear, corrosion, and other damage semiannually. If your extinguisher uses a dry chemical agent, be sure to turn it upside down and give it a good shake every few months.
If you are faced with a fire onboard, Valpreda says the absolute first thing you should do is radio or signal for help; if you delay, your battery cables might burn through, leaving you without radio power and in a potentially fatal position. If it’s possible, maneuver your boat so that the wind blows the smoke and fumes away from crew areas and passengers; most fire fatalities are caused by asphyxiation from smoke inhalation and breathing in toxic byproducts of burning plastics and other materials.
This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.