Realism in Fire and other Shipboard Drills

I dragged a dummy out of the ship once, in turnout gear, on air, with a blinded SCBA respirator. It was incredibly difficult and I hurt my back while doing so. Hell of a drill. It was eye opening to say the least.

Been there and done that. We had an exercise where we tried putting the 1st engineer into a Neil Robertson stretcher. The trouble was he was 6 foot 7 inches tall and 280 pounds. The stretcher was unable to contain his legs below the knee and the straps weren’t long enough to secure him in it. Before anyone asks he had six pack abs and was about six pick handles and a plug of tobacco across the shoulders. A great bloke to go into a bar with.
I enquired about getting one of those yellow ones that you see firemen using. The $2000 price tag meant that I was wasting my time ordering it.

I have been debating with myself whether or not to tell the following story such as it is, for several reasons. One is that this discussion seems to be driven largely by SMS mandated drills, which have no place where I come from. Another is that the sort of venture described below is heavily frowned upon around here, and I was just starting to get comfortable. However, this discussion is framed in context of the Conception disaster, so I think a sideways glance at the less serious end of the spectrum is in order.

First a bit of back story:

I got hired as engineer on a deep sea rescue tug in private ownership, a very serious bit of kit, complete with all the bells and whistles to locate and assist vessels in distress. The owner / operator was afflicted with a unique bouquet of mental disorders that had made him obscenely rich, but left him entirely unsuited for running a ship. I came on board because he somehow understood the need for some nautical competence to keep the thing running, and I quickly expanded the crew with two people I met in a bar: A hungry but inexperienced deck hand (I hear she is doing very well in her career), and a landlubber cook whose culinary gifts changed my view of the world. The rest of the crew was itinerant.

In short, I was the only person on board with half a clue what I was doing. The rest of the saga is mostly funny, sometimes dark, and went into some truly twisted places before it jarred to a halt. That story may or may not be told some day, but this is about the firefighting side of things.

I had a look at the firefighting gear on board, and found several firefighting suits with SCBA, barrels of foaming agent, rolls and rolls of fire hose, a bewildering array of nozzles, a portable fire pump, and a fire main fed from the ballast pump. Oh, and a fixed firefighting system in the ER, that had the core components ripped out due to the halon ban.

Then I had a good look at my crew resources, and formulated the following plan in case of an ER fire:

  • Close the dampers
  • Close the fuel feed valves (remotely operated)
  • Muster and prepare to abandon ship from the foredeck.

The one thing I actually did was to move one of the life rafts from the top of the superstructure, since that was uncomfortably close to the stack. What was I supposed to do? Get us all some high quality training at an accredited facility? Stage comprehensive and realistic drills to bring everyone up to speed? Divert the operating budget into a modern CO2 system? I could barely keep the ship painted as it was, and if I’d put my foot down, I would have been off the boat quicker than we could lower the gangplank. Sometimes you just gotta piss with the cock you’ve got, which is arguably OK so long as you understand the danger and take it into account.

TL;DR: This guy’s got a very valid point:


Shipboard requirements are driven by the CFRs, not the SMS. For example the SMS might have a specific form to be used for keeping records but the requirement for record keeping originates from the CFRs.

With regards to this:

I’ve never seen a plan that specific, be more along the lines of “evaluate the situation” if that. From my experience and what I’ve heard reluctance to use the fixed system is not a problem. I do frequently see C/E and 1 A/E dying in the E/R after going in after the release of CO2 for one reason or the other.

Pre SMS a U.S. flag ship did have a major cargo hold fire with a full car load.
Here’s what happened.

Car fire on 12 deck, crew identified fire as an engine room fire (smoke pulled in through vents). Crew leaves engine room only to discover the fire is actually in the cargo holds. Crew discharges CO two into cargo space but it’s lost though open vents.

Crew closes vents to appropriate space, releases the remaining CO2 which extinguishes the fire.

For cargo fires my SMS goes like this more or less.

  1. Identify space on fire
  2. Secure ventialtion and power to space
  3. Release CO two into space on fire.

The thinking is so called “good mariner” don’t need a check list to tell them what to do but experience indicates otherwise.

The quantity of CO2 in the fixed system is limited and therefore a precious commodity when it comes to its use.

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Inside the CO two room on the controls there is a permanently mounted check-list, maybe five or six items (muster, close the vents etc) provided by the manufacturer of the system.

I made a copy of that check-list and put it in my book of check-list. When we get to the part of the drill that requires the release of the CO two the chief is in the CO two room and I"m on the bridge. We go through the check-list item by item to make sure nothing is missed. The Chief has to tell me the name of the space on fire (for example “B Zone”).

It takes maybe 15 seconds but it does help both me and the chief to stop just for a bit and focus on the critical items only.

Mariners tend to overestimate how well they will preform in an emergency.

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Back in the day, when I was a TAGOS master, I decided to have realistic and unannounced drills. I was the least popular master in the fleet. But, I knew that if sh!t happened at oh-dark-thirty, the crew would be most likely able to deal with it.

Shortly after leaving the dock, we’d have an all-hands meeting, where the crew was informed of the plan. No more F&B drills at 13:00 on friday, it would be unannounced - not during meal hours, not during the night, and not on weekends (loud groans). Fire teams to suit up in bunker gear every time (which was relaxed once they got dressed out and on scene in 6 minutes from alarm bell).

We’d dispatch a crew member on an errand to the “fire”-the goal being that the crew member would report the fire to the bridge. Well, the first time, when the crew member saw the sign on the door of the space reading “Black smoke-hot door”, he blatantly went into the space to complete the errand!!! LOL Ok, that was a fail. Eventually I got my hands on a holloween smoke-machine…

What we learned by these unannounced drills, was that crew members had difficulties reporting WHERE the fire was!! We also learned how to deal with situations when some members of the crew didn’t hear the alarm - sleeping, or using the head, or working with needle guns or grinders.

Within a month, crew response was fantastic, and on track. When it came time to securing vents and power, they had to actually put their hands on the controllers/switches. We learned that some power was in the ship’s store - which of course is locked!! Because the ship was a SWATH, we learned that securing ventilation on one side, didn’t help-the other side still fed air (4 transverse p-ways), so we secured all ventilation.

I wanted to pull lighting (power) for the drills, but felt that the sea-lawyers aboard would cause more harm than necessary.

Unfortunately, my relief would always go back to the “13:00 on Friday” scheduled drills. Sigh. And I’d have to start from “ground-zero” again.

When I left TAGOS and went commercial, I realized that fitting the F&B drill in between ports was very difficult, and trying to do it “unscheduled” was almost impossible given STCW rest requirements.

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This is the sort of thing that today I’d expect to find in the fire fighting plan.

It’s a guide for both fighting fires and planning drills. It can be used as a checklist to insure for example all the appropriate vents are closed and a list of hazards etc.

It’s more of a plan in the sense of a drawing. No guidance on what specific firefighting tactics to be used.

I was the least popular master in the fleet. But, I knew that if sh!t happened at oh-dark-thirty, the crew would be most likely able to deal with it.

I know what you mean there. Try to rise above mediocrity and the system drags you back down, even if your actions are meant to save lives.

when the crew member saw the sign on the door of the space reading “Black smoke-hot door”, he blatantly went into the space to complete the errand!!! LOL Ok, that was a fail. Eventually I got my hands on a halloween smoke-machine…
Yep, that’s the difference between kabuki-theater and realism. Most crew members try to get through a drill as quickly as possible with the minimum of mental investment. Drills are like church: pray with the padre, sing with the organ, and belt the amen because you’ll be home in time for football. Not a lot of introspection involved. But let lightning strike the steeple and you’ll be talking straight to Heaven.

What we learned by these unannounced drills, was that crew members had difficulties reporting WHERE the fire was!! We also learned how to deal with situations when some members of the crew didn’t hear the alarm - sleeping, or using the head, or working with needle guns or grinders.
The ugly head of reality rising up and stinging us. But a vaccination against future mishap. Plans are great but IMO crucial to planning and drilling is dealing with the realistic question, “What if the plan doesn’t work?”

I like the fact that you brought up that people can go “missing” in an emergency. So what does the plan say if two people are missing during the muster, when, say, dealing with a fire? Do we deal with a possible situation of people in immediate peril, or do we deal with the fire? Both require allocation of personnel. Might not be able to do both at once. But often an officer won’t even know about the eventuality until a drill conducted with a degree of realism points out the problem.

I wanted to pull lighting (power) for the drills, but felt that the sea-lawyers aboard would cause more harm than necessary.

And you were right to think it. A real consideration. Too bad, because nothing gets a person’s attention like robbing them of vision. That’s when you’re going to determine who’s going to crack in the real emergency. People get panicky when they can’t see.

It was either fire fighting, advanced fire fighting or both but I do recall being blindfolded and having to crawl thorough pitch dark maze with an SCBA at the union school. Etc. Plus training at the Navy school for MSC.

Nothing has come close to my experience when I was an E-4 in Coast Guard stationed on a ship at Kodiak Island.

Kodiak Island has some artifacts left over from WWII including some old concrete bunkers.

One day me and few other crew members were taken to one of those old bunkers for firefighting training. The inside of the bunker was about the size of a typical kitchen, it had two openings, one door and a small opening in the top.

The trainers had thrown in a bunch of wood pallets, some old tires, drenched the whole thing with diesel and set it on fire.

There were two first class (E-6) damage controlmen from the ship there as well. They were told to go in first. They both refused to go in. They said they didn’t care if they got busted down a grade, they were not going in, didn’t think it was safe. These are DC men, trained for this.

So the trainers picked two more guys, me and another crew and told us to go inside and put the fire out. Which had been cooking the entire time during the fight with the two DC men.

I had a total of about one year of sea time at that point, so I said sure, let’s go.

I was led hoseman and it was HOTT, hot in there, I thought my head might catch fire. I had to get down on my hand and knees to crawl in, zero visibility. Plus no SCBA, one of old OBAs, anyone remember those? You couldn’t take a big calming deep breath because the little air bags would collapse.

When I opened the hose nozzle the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see the water stream. After several second I could see the glow of the flames though the thick black smoke. A little bit after that I could see the water stream and re-aimed the hose. It took a while but sweeping back and forth I got the flames put out.

After that, all the other training seems tame to me. I did later learn more about firefighting and firefighting training and I now think that those two DC men were the smart ones to refuse.


Great story. Reminds me of Stephen Ambrose’s book about D-Day. About how the generals consciously decided to put the green troops in with the first wave, knowing they would take the greatest losses, thus saving the more valuable veterans for the second wave. Looks like your DC men read the same book.:grinning:


That’s the fun in being lead hoseman. Not just blinded by smoke and pushing against the effects of the spray but pulling the hose and the reluctant crew behind you hanging on to that hose for dear life.


That came about a decade after Kodiak, taking firefighting for MSC at a Navy base. The training facilities were well equipped, a burnt out helo, the smoke blacked shell of the upper decks of a ship and such.

The instructors were two Navy petty officers in work uniform, both young, fit and somewhat gung-ho, instructing eight of us merchants who were tending towards less young, less fit and less enthusiastic. I got the impression the Navy sailors did not think as highly of us as we did.

The E/R simulator was what looked like a entry to a subway or to a house basement, it consisted of a ladder (stairs) leading from ground level one flight down to a small concrete space with a steel grate deck.

Once we got ready they fired it off, nasty looking oil-fed yellow and orange flames started rolling out under the grating. But the set-up had another feature which the bunker in Kodiak did not, that is very powerful exhaust ventilation pulling out almost all the smoke and heat. A very safe and controlled well engineered training situation, especially compared to Kodiak.

The other four man team goes down in first, led by one Navy. Once they got to the bottom they used straight stream into the flames, which seemed to have no effect, but after a bit the roar of the flames diminish as the fuel supply to the burners was reduced then stopped altogether when the fuel is cut.

My team is next. We had just watched the other team go in and come out without even breaking into a sweat. We had a clear view the entire time because the powerful ventilation made for good visibility. Looks like a piece of cake.

For the next run I was lead hoseman with one Navy going in next to me with the other three hosemen behind me on the hose.

In we go. But half way down it was like the hose had gotten hung up behind me and I had to stop.

Between the diesel burners and the ventilation fans it was too noisy to talk but glancing back over my shoulder everything looked OK, three stout-hearted, fully suited up mariners, on air, ready to fight a fire. So I tried started down again but I still couldn’t pull the hose. It was a three against one tug-of-war with the hose as the rope.

I’m stuck half way down but Navy is waiting at the bottom, when he sees me part way down the ladder he comes back up, grabs my left arm and starts pulling me down the ladder. Still a tug-of-war but now I’m part of the rope.

At this point Navy had hold of my left elbow pulling me down so I only have one hand on the hose and I’m starting to lose my grip. By this time I’d figured out that the rest of the team would prefer a coffee break to any more fire fighting practice.

After Kodiak I don’t mind going in so I let go of the hose, Navy and I head back down, arm in arm, down into the simulated inferno or actually down onto the steel grates, a couple feet safely above the inferno.

The two of us get to the bottom, Navy makes a sweeping motion with his arm, signals me to start spraying the fire. But we have a Zen koan hose team, no hose and no team.

I show Navy my empty right hand, no hose. We look back up and there is the rest of the team who have now fully retreated and are watching us from outside.

Back up and outside, Navy starts yelling at us, me for being a wise ass and the rest for being chicken. After a bit Navy pauses for a breath, one of the mariners looks at his watch and asks isn’t it almost time for lunch? That seems to break Navy, he knocks us off.

To the point regarding merchant mariner taking training less seriously, compared to the Navy, I would concede that’s true.


I had the fire team extract an engineer on a stretcher in full gear, on air (not blinded) and that was difficult. He was also just about the smallest guy on the vessel, definitely the smallest engineer.

I used to work for a company who’s SMS required a quarterly night time abandon ship drill that we’d do either black ship or on emergency power only. (I don’t think that last part was required but why else do it at night, right?)

I’ve trained that way before and it occasionally happens accidentally. A guy I worked with years ago missed a drill when he was an OS, he forgot and was in his room with out with headphones on, having moved some furniture in front of the door to make room for exercising, then looks up to see guys in full turnout hear crashing into his room.

Apart from my naval service I attended 3 training courses in the merchant marine. The first was conducted by the navy where we fought a fire in the dark in a replica of an engine room. The only light was from the oil fires burning in the bilges below the engine room plates. The second was at Leith in Scotland and the last at an oil refinery. I can’t imagine a modern day HR department happy with any of them.

Back in the early 90’s I was taking a FF refresher at MSC’s Leonardo, NJ School.

They had a mock-up of a berthing arrangement which was used for High Smoke / low Visibility training. They told us to look for the “Orange Glow” and aim the stream towards it. I was the lead on the hose and when we made entry, I couldn’t see anything! I finally saw the glow and aimed, once that “glow” went away, I spotted another “glow” and re aimed towards that spot. After a couple of seconds that glow went out and all kind of alarm bells went off and we were told to back out. Once out, we were told that we would be breaking early for lunch as I had put out the bucket they used to light the fires. That second glow that I saw was actually the flame from the light off bucket reflecting in a porthole and by pure luck, I had aimed the stream at the port hope and “bounced” the stream off of the glass and into the flaming bucket. LOL

They had to wash down the area outside and refill the bucket. The Instructors were not amused when I asked if I got “extra credit” for putting “two” fire locations out.

I was working on Seagoing ATB’s as CE at the time and as luck had it, the CM from my vessel was in the same class as I was, this was not planned. After returning to work, both of us tried to get the company to send all of the crew to FF School as a unit. The CM and I really worked better together after going through that class together. The company never acted on our suggestion which to me was very shortsighted!


Our local fire department has a concrete building for training. Back in the day they got free used transformer oil from the power company to burn in there. It was complete with PCBs for added realism and now they are settling suits and paying medical bills for the various types of cancer that this caused years later.