Realism in Fire and other Shipboard Drills

That’s true, a lot of room for improvement.

It does seem to me that the risk of fire was taken more seriously on a car ship than some other ships I sailed.

My point is the drills have to focus on the likely failure point. On a big RO/RO it’s locating the source of the fire and organizing rapid response.

I avoid bruised egos to some extent by critiquing the officers separate from the crew. When to embarrass in public vs correct in private is a leadership/management issue.

You’re more generous than Theodore Sturgeon who famously (at least in SF circles) said “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

The passenger drill on a cruise ship is practice for the guests, stairway guides and muster personnel. Other drills (fire, boats, damage/flooding, enclosed space rescue, helicopter evac, MOB etc) go on daily run by the Safety Officer, and actually can be quite in depth and rigorous.

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This is again a risk management issue. Everything has a cost. If the focus is on one thing it will not be on something else,

RO/RO tends to be hazardous. For example working cargo with a new third mate, I see him standing behind a 30 ton front end loader waiting for the longshoremam sittting in the drivers seat to move it.

I’ll call him over and ask him “does that longshoreman have that machine in forward or reverse?” Of course the third mates says “I don’t know mate, I don’t know how to drive that machine”, so I’ll tell him, “yeah, that guy driving might not either”.

Another thing is the decks can be moved. The procedure is to lock the doors that will not have matching deck before moving the deck. From time to time it doesn’t happen in that order.

So sure it’s possible the GPS could go out and it’s possible a crew could get confused in the smoke. But an actual AB of mine did go to another ship and get crushed and killed by a vehicle and I have found doors unlocked on the ship with a drop to the deck below a step away with new cadets wandering around the ship. A former 2nd mate of mine was crushed and killed on another ship by a mooring wire during a simple line shift. And so on.

I agree. It is a risk management issue. Now, do your fire fighting plans for your ship call for personnel to go down belowdecks at any point to make a direct attack on a fire?

I work on first of class survivability testing for USN & USNS ships. We tend toward more realistic props than the Navy in general. On one ship, I think we used about 17 smoke machines for one mock fire. We have fun. :smiley: The smoke machines are augmented by strobe lights, life size posters of mangled metal and of course the Navy damage flags. When possible, we kill power, ideally at a load center or generator. We still haven’t come up with a good way to implement running water.

The safety restrictions border on ridiculous sometimes. Since the lights go out, we go through cases of chem lights. Try making a realistic debris field that isn’t a trip hazard. There’s also protecting fussy electronics that don’t like to be turned off in a hurry.

The USNS ships are a challenge for us. The squids do drill, sort of, the pro mariners not as much. The high level DC plan is abandon ship. There have been instances where in the middle of a drill, the crew was making plans to leave. Designing the scenarios so we can assess the functionality of the ship design, but not chase the crew off is a challenge.


Yes, every drill scenario has the same basis. One team direct attach second team boundary cooling, third team support. Spaces with no fixed system are assumed to be put out by the crew. Scenario for spaces with fixed systems are direct attack, E/R and cargo spaces are direct attack, boundary cooling, a retreat from space, second muster then simulated fixed system use.

For a full load cargo space fire focus on proper identification of space on fire and on closing vents and use of fixed CO2. With a deck full of cars physics is not on the side of a direct attack. Although the crew does prepare to carry out a direct attack.

This is based at least in part on actual company experience with car fires as well as industry experience. Plus the physics of close stowed burning cars with rubber tires and gasoline in the tanks.

This is fantastic training. Granted, this level of training is beyond most merchant vessels. Not because it is impossible to do but because, as Kennebec says, in the hierarchy of dangers aboard an inspected vessel the chance of fire is relatively low, and money and time have to be distributed over a variety of possible dangers. The business of a USN/USNS ship is take take on damage and keep fighting. The business of a merchant ship is to make a buck.

I started this thread because I did notice a certain amount of pontificating and chest-thumping from a few posters about how poorly the crew of the Conception performed in the tragedy. Certainly every poster thinks they would have done better. Maybe they would have. But IMO, at the base of the Conception and El Faro tragedies one cause stands out: complacency. Complacency in drills. Complacency in thinking. The universal tendency towards good-old, warm, comfy, sweet-sweet mediocrity leads to complacency.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose.


Now, in terms of risk management, do our plans require the captain to ask their self, “Are the members of my fire teams physically capable of a direct attack, with all the physical stress and danger that entails?” If the answer is NO, does the plan direct the captain, “Buster, do NOT to attempt a direct attack”?

Somewhere in the planning process is there a caveat that would identify the 62-year old AB with a heavy smoking habit, whose only firefighting experience was a training session five years earlier, and exclude such a person from taking part in a fire team? Because if there isn’t such a mechanism, risk is not being managed.

My guess is that 90% of all fire plans made by captains are fantasies necessarily driven by the rigors of the industrial world. The more the plan relies on fixed systems and the less they rely on human beings, the better the plan will work. Because unrealistic training can set people up for failure.

Fixed fire-fighting systems are very well designed. Yet fixed systems are tested often. Not play-acting. By actually releasing a small quantity of gas. To see if it will do the job in actual conditions. Steel, bronze, and CO2. Rock solid. More reliable than any AB. Yet we don’t trust the system. We actually test it. Realistically.

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At the point the crew of the Conception woke up to a fully involved fire there was nothing they COULD do. All I got was maybe they should have stood a watch like they were supposed to.

The plans are not that detailed. A list of hazards, fuel sources, adjacent spaces, list of fire fighting equipment available, fixed systems if any. A list of which vents serve the area, sources of power and the like.

The initial response of the crew is the same in each case, muster, suit up etc. As far as direct attack vs fixed system that’s going to be a a call that’s going to be made depending on the circumstances. Preparations are made in each case for a direct attack, if a fixed system is used the team can be used instead for boundary cooling or as needed.

True. But I think you would agree that training to respond to the fire before full involvement would have been a good thing.

Does anyone happen to know the what the fixed system onboard the Serenity Ace was?

On small or small(ish) craft there really isn’t a complex plan of fire hoses and suits. You either get it out right away or jump off the boat. The people I know that have been on boats that caught fire barely escaped with their lives things went up so fast.
I would hope they were trained on activating the engine room fixed system and whatever resources they had up on deck. It would have been pretty bad if they were awake but unable to handle the initial presumed small fire. They could not go spraying CO2 around to any large degree until everyone was out of the berthing area. I have halon type extinguishers on my own boat for this reason, I can spray them and not suffocate myself.

I know what you mean. I administer five 260’ long boats and one 65’ training boat, and the little one is the one I worry most about with fire. The big ones have trained crews, turnout gear, SCBAs, scads of SCBA bottles, etc. Which you can’t fit on a small boat. The most valuable things you can do is train for use of portables and fixed system. And now I might get serious about evacuation drills in smoke. I’m thinking of inserting in the carpeting of the cabin a line of LED lights leading to the exits. Like they do on airliners. You can get them on the internet. Then training by putting the trainees in their bunks, filling the space with a fog machine and have them find their way out. Overkill, I know, but realism does tend to make things memorable.

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It’s only overkill until it saves lives.

It sounds strange to hear it called complex, it is in the sense that it is made up of several parts.

There are a set of standard procedures, for example sound the general alarm and muster the crew. That and similar have been in place for many years and seem very familiar.

Another part is the station bill, also been around a long time, Lists each crews duties. Very simple in theory and practice.

Many of the crew skills involved are part of the required training. Firefighting tactics are straight out of the book. What’s called the fire control plan is a drawing supplied by the builder and shows the arrangement of firefighting equipment. What we call the plan consists of drawing of the major individual compartments with a list of vents to be closed and the location of the power supply and equipment available.

Drill frequency, required shipboard training is from the CFRs and the SMS.

Nothing that would strike a professional mariner as complex.

The big motor ship engine rooms seem tailor-made to be hard to fight a fire in without resorting to a fixed system. Tall space, entered from the top, endless sources of oil once it burns hot enough to start letting more oil out with a bilge at the bottom. I’m not sure there are any great answers except to be realistic about the necessary of using the fixed system. The newer ships have various water mist systems which are a big aid if the nozzles and piping are maintained properly.


The water mist system on the Alliance St. Louis failed because the power for the pump burned up in the ER overhead. They ended up dumping CO2. I wonder how the outcome would’ve varied if they had a functioning water mist.

I’d prefer a water mist system above anything else.

Yes, being realistic with regards to firefighting aboard ship is critical.

Over the years I’ve seen several small fires aboard ship. All were put out before the fire team arrived. It stands to reason that for every 100 small fires there will be some number of medium fires that cannot be put out by action by a single individual but can be put out by the team as well as some that will require the fixed system.

Not all engine room fires are going to be fed by uncontrolled fuel, another common cause is welding. With clean bilges and so forth using a team might be the most prudent approach.

Also the E/R I am familiar with have access to the lower levels. The escape trunks likely not suitable for firefighting but there is also access from the steering gear room which might be relativity safe depending on the circumstances.

There are no plans to drag dead bodies out of the E/R to clear the way for another attack.