[QUOTE=Kennebec Captain;190418]The thinking is to get the fire out as quickly as possible. For the E/R or cargo spaces if the fire can’t be put out by the fire teams within 10 or 20 minutes max the plan is to retreat and used the fixed system. It’s hard to envision a scenario where we would be still sending in teams into a space protected with a fixed system after 30 minutes…[/QUOTE]
On an inspected vessel, perhaps yes. But on an uninspected vessel, likely no.
As you know, uninspected U.S. vessels may have substantial amounts of combustibles in their make-up: plywood/ formica paneling and overheads, foam insulation, etc. Some people may take issue with the existence of these combustibles in their structure, but it is still a fact, and must be dealt with in planning for firefighting. Since SCBA usage is key to firefighting, SCBA training can be argued to more important on uninspected vessels than inspected vessels.
Once a fire starts on such a vessel—whether it be from a broken fuel line spraying fuel on a turbocharger in the engineroom, or an electrical short in wiring buried in foam insulation in a cargo hold, the fire very quickly becomes a Class-A fire traveling behind bulkheads and through overheads, unseen by firefighters, hidden first by the nature of the construction, and then by smoke, quickly moving upwards from lower decks to upper decks.
In fires aboard an uninspected vessel of this sort, I advocate using the fixed system FIRST, if provided at the original seat of the fire. The hope is to instantly knock down the fire before it moves to surrounding combustibles, and then upwards to higher decks. Others will disagree, and advocate using the fixed system as a last resort. I point to the P/V Galaxy fire of 2003 and rest my case. If the crew had never gone near the fire and simply set of the fixed system likely the fire would have been extinguished and no one would have died.
It takes time for even the best fire teams to assemble and make a plan of action. If the fire gets into the bulkheads and overheads (and I am confining my remarks to uninspected vessels of a particular sort), while the fire teams are assembling, they have let themselves in for a knockdown, long drawn-out mixture of direct attacks and indirect attacks with hose lines and extinguishers, while they tear out bulkheads and overheads, chasing down the fire. This has been the case with a number of fires in Alaskan waters. In most cases the fire wins.
The phenomenon of fires travelling within walls is not specific to ships. It occurs in shoreside structures also. The fire axes we have aboard ship may have a lot of theoretical purposes. Good marine firefighting schools teach you how to use them in a specific technique used by structural firefighters to quickly punch a hole in thick plywood bulkhead, so you can blast water in the space between it and the steel bulkhead to extinguish the actual seat of the fire.
On an uninspected vessels (which, I believe, make up the bulk of U.S. vessels) fixed systems are not commonly found outside of the engineroom, paint locker, and cargo holds. And sprinkler systems won’t reach a fire traveling within the bulkheads and overheads of the passageways and accomodations
All this points to the need for proper SCBA training and lots of bottles—or a realistic policy of abandoning ship early on. I know of one large tug company whose policy is to send their mariners to firefighting school; and yet they have a policy of not fighting a fire aboard the boat, but rather to abandon ship. Mixed message? Or pragmatism?
The system of rotating firefighters in the hot zone is a common one with structural firefighters, and should be adhered to, in my opinion, when it comes to a direct attack on a below-decks fire in the scenario I have described. The drawback of the technique is that it requires realistic training on an annual basis, with physically-fit personnel. The key is rotating the firefighters in and out of the hot zone on a rigid schedule (commonly 10 minutes). This gives a measure of safety to the firefighters, hopefully getting them topside before their low air alarms go off, and gives the fire commander (usually the chief mate) a degree of control over the crew, since he or she will have little control over the fire, at first. Then it’s a matter of SCBA training and a shitload of air bottles to put the fire out, more so than extinguishing agent.
The rotation technique takes time to learn—who’s doing the timing? how do you signal the firefighters their time is up? But it is a powerful technique whose foundation is proper SCBA usage. It prepares the crew for a prolonged battle. If you study actual cases of shipboard fires at sea you’ll learn that the crew often do everything right—to a point. Then the fire throws them a curveball and they panic and run. Poor training. Short-term mindset. Better to train crews to go into the event prepared for the long run. Or, alternatively, and rationally, confine them to indirect attacks. Or set off the fixed system early and often, and keep your distance.
Another key is for the captain, or company, to set guidelines as to when to stop firefighting and prepare to abandon ship. Rule of thumb in the scenario I have described: when the fire has spread to more than two decks, or if the fire seems to be cutting the crew off from the embarkation deck, it’s time to move towards the lifeboats/rafts. When the fire spreads to more than two decks it is usually too complex to fight. In such a case, even a veteran group of professional structural fire fighters would happily let the ship burn without a second thought, as long as no one was trapped below.
So how do I know all this? By working with structural firefighters for years in training seamen, and by studying the history of Alaskan marine firefighting. In particular you have to study the cases no one ever hears about, which are the successes. USCG and NTSB only document failure. Predictable but shortsighted. Many people know about the F/V Galaxy fire in 2003. 3 people died, in a textbook case of what not to do (and also an amazing story of heroism on the part of the captain and others). Yet few people remember the F/T Pacific Glacier in 2008, because it was a hands-down, epic Win. A textbook case of how to put out an intractable shipboard fire like the one described above. No one injured. Boat saved.
Without going through the whole story the fire started below decks and began spreading as described above. Most of the crew of about 106 souls were evacuated to other large fishing vessels that came to the 253’ LOA Pacific Glacier’s aid. Then the key crew, and trained crew members from the Good Samaritan vessels, prosecuted a direct attack through two smoke-filled decks, using 76 bottles of air, refilled from BA compressors aboard the Good Samaritan boats. They used the rotation technique, described above, among other things, hunting down fires as the flames raced through bulkhead and overheads. It took 12 HOURS of constant combat to extinguish the fire. The Pacific Glacier crews trained at the same firefighting school as the boats I work with, so I heard the details of the story from the captain and mate afterwards.
So, to sum up, in my opinion, if you are on an uninspected vessel with combustibles in her make-up have plenty of SCBAs, lots of bottles, and train on compressed air constantly. Or, equally valid, set off the fixed system early and realize your limitations.