Realism in Fire and other Shipboard Drills

The speculation on this subject seems to have calmed down. Much of it was fascinating reading. It started me thinking:

How many shipboard fire drills consist of stationing personnel in their cabins or below-deck places of work, blindfolding them, and then have them crawl on hands and knees to the closest exit to fresh air?

How many vessels use smoke machines to fill interior spaces for the same sort of training?

How many 3000+ pax cruise ships do this? The few Ive been on the lifeboat drill is a brief respite to let the bar restock.

AFAIK, the USN is the only one who regularly trains pax(crew) in DC/casualty response and evac with loss of sensory perception evacuations

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I ordered one for my ship many years ago for occasional use in drills where the scenario was a fire in the house. Also good for finding vacuum leaks.

This is how it goes down in practice, pretty much like the Benny Hill show:

The multiple riverboat casino evacuation injuries after the Bright Field also spring to mind.

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Oh, I’ve no doubt passengers are not going to fare well in a realistic simulation of smoke rapidly filling the living spaces of a vessel. What I wonder about is how the professional mariner will do.

Most often fire drills are a mock battle where the general and troops have all of the weapons and know the enemy’s plans beforehand. Result: in the drill the enemy (the fire) is always vanquished in time for lunch/dinner.

But in how many of these drills are the troops deprived of their main weapon: eyesight? In how many of these drills is the enemy allowed to encircle the troops?

My guess: there are a lot of vessels where the office/captain/crew won’t even allow an escape drill where crew members are blindfolded, or using smoke machines, even with people acting as safety spotters, because the drill is too realistic. The main danger being punctured egos.

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What an unbelievable MESs with the lifeboats, life rafts and MES. I suppose this is the average condition of that gear on most ships.

I remember that on a ship I was on the Canadian inspector, who was on board for the renewal of the certificate, ordered that the riverside lifeboat should be lowered into the water. As soon as the wooden boat swung free it fell like an overripe fruit from a tree, splitting wide open on impact. That was quite a sight. Water is then like concrete.

The problem with an individual captain making choices with regards to the type and nature of drills is that an individual’s assessment of risk is going to be biased by his own limited experience.

Better to use a drill schedule based on statistical probability. The way to do that is simply follow the drill schedule and scenarios as laid out in the SMS. Otherwise captains who have had an engine room fire will overemphasize that drill while captains that have experienced a cargo fire will focus on that and neither will be fully prepared when a man falls overboard.

We used to do “real world” training until someone got hurt during the training. The smoke machine was never seen again.

I agree that there is value in challenging crewmembers with realistic training and really wish I could still do it. Unfortunately, the reality of ISM as I see it is for the company to protect their “metrics” at all cost. An injury during training is still counted as an injury and therefore the easiest way to prevent further injuries is to make the training “safe”.

Continual improvement achieved…

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I would say we have a 90 day drill cycle. At the begining of the 90 day trip the first drill is kept simple, find your muster station, hook up the hoses, turn on the pump etc, see what the mate looks like, what each voice sounds like on the radio.

On the very last drill of the voyage before payoff there is little to be gained with a long involved drill as the crew is used to working together, knows the ship and it’s equipment ect and for the most part have checked out. Trip is over.

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With MARPOL the way it is nowadays, it is difficult to do much more than some Williamson turns and return to a digital MOB point on the ECDIS. We used to toss a paper scuttlesack over he side as a simulated MOB but that all went away when MARPOL changed.

My Navy buddies had simulations with a “ship” that could be flooded in various ways and maybe be “on fire” too. I think it is in Newport someplace on land. One excercise involved escaping a cabin while being blasted with cold water.

Of course no ship is going to be fully prepared for an emergency.

But just going over the basics can be useful. For example the required drill for grounding. We don’t actually practice using the lead line, we can figure that out when the time comes. But at least during the drill have the bos’n put his hands on it so it can be found when needed.

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In this case just having the mate’s using the MOB on the GPS and a disscussion of use of the ECDIS is going to be very useful. It’s the confusion that has to be avoided. The manuver and recovery are just out of the standard playbook.

Not only the US Navy, all Navies do this. Even the training centers for offshore crews does this, or at least in NW Europe they do.

In 1989 I did a job on the Ekofisk Field in the North Sea. I was required to take a refresher course in Rotterdam, although I had just renewed my Offshore Survival Certificate in Malaysia.

The Training center there had an old coaster that was used for Fire fighting training, incl. finding your way around the engine room with a blacked out BA mask.

I lead a group holding onto each other when I found a piece of pipe which I used to check what was in front of us (like a “white cane” for the blind)
The instructor claimed that that was cheating, which I disputed, “In an emergency you use whatever means available”.

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The research, small passenger vessel & cruise ship industries would loose the majority of their business if passengers were blindfolded or put into dark smoke filled rooms before leaving port during the first abandon ship drill. During & after such a drill most people would run off the vessels in horror & demand a refund. It’s usually the crews responsibility to reassure passengers that everything will be okay, not to tell them how screwed they will be if shit hits the fan. It would kill the industries for those types of vessels. Other practical means of safety should be implemented first like making safety equipment so easy that anyone can operate it, proper emergency lighting & SOLAS reflection tape & easy accessible emergency exits. Having top notch crew, procedures & equipment & realistic expectations from passengers would be better than smoke drills IMO.

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I was there, in the mall when that happened. My ex and I were in NOLA for a few days, and as we entered the mall, I recall hearing several short blasts on a ship’s horn (yeah, five) followed by one long, and to be honest, I kinda zoned on it, and thought it was the cruise ship over on the Julia Street Pier leaving. . .A few minutes after we walked in, we were in a store and told to leave because there was a shooting. . really? As we all grouped around in the plaza in front of the mall, I looked over and saw all of the people on the casino boat outside and wearing life jackets. Hmm, that isn’t right. . .well, the ex had to pee, so we went next door to the Hilton. As I waited for her, I could overhear conversations on the pay phones (not too many cell phones, yet) and people were talking about a ship hitting the mall. . .what? Well, I was working for ABS back then, so in my natural paranoia, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t one of “my” ships. When my ex came out, we wandered against the flow and saw the BRIGHT FIELD there, nosed into the mall. What a bad time to not have my camera. . . . I just remember seeing the damage and pink insulation, and figured that there were many dead. Certainly was an interesting afternoon. . .

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Again, for those late to the party: the thread is about realistically training mariners, not passengers.

This seems to me what I described before: army maneuvers where the good guys always win, because the chance is the good guys will win, and because we don’t want to upset the field marshal. But if the generals would say to the field marshal, "What if the plan doesn’t work?..

We used to do “real world” training until someone got hurt during the training. The smoke machine was never seen again.

Which I understand. Normal human reaction. I understand your irony here: Once your crew deviated from the kabuki-theater of normal shipboard fire drill reality raised its ugly head and taught a valuable lesson. Company reaction: go back to kabuki theater.

Unfortunately, the reality of ISM as I see it is for the company to protect their “metrics” at all cost.

I’m glad the company I work for doesn’t have an ISM and SMS: in this regard at least they seem counterproductive. My same feeling with the El Faro disaster. Reading of the captain trying to comply with a useless dictate in a manual written by lawyers for lawyers as his ship is dying. What use the ISM except as a final humiliation? But that’s another thread…

I run a lot of training in a private fire fighting facility. 5,000 square feet. Three decks. Simulations where the crew doesn’t always win. Sometimes the fire kicks the crew’s a$$. Always a good way to learn.

Some takeaways from twenty years of training mariners to fight fires:

  • Unless crews breath live-air from SCBAs during shipboard drills they shouldn’t be allowed to use them down below for actual firefighting. The chance is they’re just going to asphyxiate themselves.
  • The main danger from fire is smoke. A poorly trained firefighter in an SCBA in a smoke-filled ship is like a poor swimmer trying to cross a raging river.
  • When shipboard fire-fighting teams deal with an actual fire somebody is going to crack. They’re going to crack because of the conjunction of smoke and SCBA usage. Someone is going to have claustrophobia, or hyperventilate, or have circulatory problems. The smoke freaks them out. I’ve had trainees rip off their masks in IDLH smoke atmospheres from hyperventilation. When that person cracks the whole firefighting effort is over. It would be good to know beforehand who’s going to crack, so they don’t don an SCBA to begin with.

Performing the most basic fire-fighting training without robbing someone of their vision is like drown-proofing someone without getting them in the water.


No deep-sea captain who took responsibility for safety aboard ship seriously would run drills like that.

An optimum drill will have a certain level of chaos and confusion. Too much and the crew gains are diminished and too little there is no challenge, nothing learned

Aside from covering the basics something like a engine room fire drill can be very challenging for a 20+ crew with three teams on a 200 meter ship where the bridge is 15 deck levels above the E/R. There are issues with comms, uhf radios fail, crew can get lost on the way ect. All this has to be worked out.

After every drill there is review/critique etc.


I take your reply at face value and have little argument except:

First of all “No [fill -in personnel]” is just rhetoric. No captain would sail a ship into a hurricane–until they do.

My guess, at least 50% of all captain run mediocre drills. Because by definition, most people–captains and crews-- are average, which is to say mediocre. (Fortunate conjunction with present thread re: average). In all human endeavors the tendency is toward mediocrity, and the more people involved in the endeavor the stronger the tendency toward mediocrity. To push against mediocrity means bruised egos and shins. Hence, drills are most likely to be mediocre.

“No true Scotsman…”

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