What Are We Smoking?

What Are We Smoking?

A seagoing fireman wonders why smoke alarms aren’t standard on yachts.

By Capt. John McDevitt


 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Smoke Detectors
• Part 2: Smoke Detectors
• Part 3: Smoke Detectors
• Man on a Mission
• Safe-T-Alert Marine Smoke Alarm

 Related Resources
• Feature Index

 Elsewhere on the Web
• Marine Technologies

Nowadays, practically anywhere you lay your head, you’re protected by a smoke alarm. A home cannot be sold without one on every floor. They’re mandated in apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, dormitories, motels, etc.—not to mention trains, planes, buses, and RVs. Since they were introduced in the 1960’s, smoke alarms have proven effective at alerting people to fires.

So where might you sleep without a smoke alarm close by? Believe it or not, the most likely spot is on your boat.

It’s surprising that boats are not required to have smoke alarms, since they usually contain significant fire dangers. There’s always a fuel source (gasoline or diesel), which is often complexly plumbed and close to occupied spaces. There are A.C/D.C. electrical systems, which are subject to corrosion and vibration and, hence, possible arcing. The materials from which boats are constructed are frequently combustible and may give off toxic fumes when burned. On top of that, there are sleeping quarters with limited egress, a situation that’s actually getting worse in some sleek, modern designs with full-beam master staterooms.

So why aren’t yachts required to have smoke alarms? One issue is “demonstrated need,” i.e. statistics showing enough adverse financial and human consequences. Unfortunately, no single governmental agency can pinpoint the damage done by boat fires. Most states do not have a “boat” classification in their fire-reporting databases, and the national reporting system only captures information on structural fires. Hence data on boat fires is only recorded in incident narratives and, since it’s not required, may not be reported at all. The Coast Guard does keep fire records when possible but says that unless a municipality or state notifies the agency, it may not be aware of a particular incident.

Nonetheless, in 1998 the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published a report titled “U.S. Vehicle Fire Trends and Patterns,” which estimated that boat fires caused an average of eight fatalities and $24.9 million in damage each year between 1980 and 1998. (These numbers match the carbon monoxide death rate that has drawn much worthwhile boating industry attention. The CO events typically do not have monetary losses.)

Next page > Part 2: A smoke alarm is most valuable when a boat is at rest and the crew is relaxing. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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