Who should be protected in an emergency at sea?

I was an EMT prior to graduating from the academy and one of the lessons they drilled i to our heads was the fact that our safety mattered more than the safety of the victims.

Why is this? Well There are long articles written on the subject and reason - ranging from maintaining high moral to loss of expertise- but the basic concept is the same as confined space entry… it’s better to delay a reacue than risk having to rescue additional men and equipment.

While this is a key tenant of shoreside emergency reaponse it’s even more critical aboard ship because there is no replacement for a lost hose team. Neither the men nor the equipment can be replaced by calling in another fire truck.

Yet this is not a lesson most mariners have learned.

I spent many years as Chief Mate aboard drillships and have contained more than my share of fires and yet I always got push back (always from the hose teams and often by the Master) on this.

My number one duty as scene commander was assessing the situation and doing what could be done quickly to prevent the fire from spreading. Number two was protecting the master, medical officer (we always had a doctor or medic aboard), staging area (in that order) and engineers in that order.

Why? No master means no top down supervision and no way to coordinate with external resources. If the medic gets hurt no one is getting treated for injuries. If the equipment and basic mechanical systems then we won’t have the means to fight the fire.

As mentioned in an earlier thread I often found myself inching closer and closer to the fire as on scene commander often ending up leading the entry teams directly. I’ve seeen many chief mates take this approach and it is highly dangerous. Without the loss of the on scene leader makes the entire response quickly deteriorate.

For these reasons I believe that, during a fire at least, some people are more valuable than others and more time and resources should be given to protecting those individuals.

What has been your experience? In emergencies have you seen the Chief Mate (or 1st engineer) leading from the front?

Well, here, every day is Earth Day.

My first (second) answer would be go by the book, follow the plan. In an emergency there is going to be a strong temptation for senior officers to abandon their supervisory role for more direct action. Better to think that through beforehand and train accordingly.

A lot of unlicensed mariners throw off the impression that they are bums but in many cases they do in fact get good training and respond appropriately in an emergency if good leadership is in place.

This is the book Marine Fire Prevention, Firefighting & Fire Safety: A Comprehensive Training & Reference Manual


In my old company, crew tended to be together for a long time. I always thought it would be a great idea to send the entire crew to Firefighting classes but the Company always feel back on they can attend classes at their Unions.

My thought for sending the entire crew is they could work together on fighting REAL fires and learn teamwork. You can drill all you want but the tendency to zone out because of running the same type of drill all the time. Let’s face it you can have as many different scenarios but when it comes down to it they are all the same. Someone gets dressed out in gear and does the entry.
I’ve been though my fair share of emergencies and you never know how anyone will react until the real thing happens. I’ve seen guys that you thought would be great fold under the pressure. One time I had a CM stand there with the radio frozen in place.

There was one fire in our ER and I insisted on making the entry so I could make sure the power was off. In this case the fire had damaged the Emergency Stops, go figure as they had just been tested the week before. Looking back maybe it was not the best decision as if I got hurt what happens but at the time it was the best of not so best ideas.

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Yes and sometimes they take their entire team down with them. I had an entire hose team once refuse to use semiportable CO2 on a battery bank convinced the would get electrocuted… they were intitially calm and responsive but, just as thy were about to enter, the chief electirician arrived and freaked out at me saying everyone was going to die. The idiot also secured ventilation after I told him not to (the battery room sat alone on deck with one fan in the ceiling venting directly to atmosphere).

That incident really sticks in my mind because the electrician (followed by the entire hose team who he corrupted) was simultaneously raging against one false fact (that co2 co ducts electricity) and one true fact (that in 99.9% of fires securing ventilation is a good idea).

I end up doing the entry myself but the Captain still calls me an idiot to this day for doing so… and I can’t disagree with him.

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One solution I found to this problem was to change the station bill to make the 1st engineer my assistant. His only job was to stick with me (I also required :100: use of the buddy system), advise on any engineering problems and stop me from doing anything dumb. He also was charged with taking over if I was injured. In the one big incident we had using this system I basically gave him command and got in close to the action myself.

This system also allowed me to give him tactical control at times when I needed to be a cheer leader and/or deal with paniced (or over-eager!) crew (my MO is to give them a quick pep talk and, if that doesn’t work, I give them a specific task far away from the danger area).

The problem with this is few chiefs will hand over the 1st to the deck department during an emergency. Those who agreed did so only with my assurance that the 1st would be sent back down anytime the cheif called for him.

P.S. I’ve tried this dual-command with other positions and never really got it to work. Some jobs were too important (e.g. bosun) to pull from other tasks. Some didn’t feel they had the authority to make tough calls. Some lacked the training. But I never had any trouble with the first.

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That’s exactly what I did. Have the C/M and 1A/E together. You need some engineering expertise and the first’s leadership skills on scene. I have the 3 A/E in the ECR with the C/E.

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Another non-standard idea we implimented with success was a rapid response team. This team didn’t muster at all but went directly to the fire to secure doors, vents, take note of hazards, and establish a safe staging area (a place that free of hazard and out of the path of an elarging fire to setup gear and for firefighters to rest as they are changed out) . After muster I would proceed to the staging area with the teams and get breifed by them… then they would fall into their station bill positions.

These guys were a real asset but I always worried about them getting injured… so… it was important to pick the right guys for the team. Guys who had knowledge and experience and were willing to not take any risk. Often this would be the bosun and an electrician.

They were under strict orders to fall back at the first sign of danger.

P.S. You need the right wording on the station bill for this. You can’t assign it to a specific position because you really need to pick the right individuals for the job. But you also don’t want to leave it off the station bill entirely.

In general, I think that the quality of shoreside STCW fire training classes is ridiculously low. The quality of onboard fire planning, fire equipment, training, and drills are also low, most are go through the motions affairs. The crew (12 hour days and no OT) hates drills.

The problem starts with lack of planning for practical ways to deal with various types of onboard fires.
Next problem is company refusal to provide any equipment that is not specifically required by USCG regulations. Tugs for example, often do not have any firemen’s suits or SCBAs. Often there will be two SCBAs with no spare bottles, and no fire suits. We constantly hear: “it’s not required. It’s not required. It’s not required.”

Just like enclosed lifeboats are readily available, but not required.

I think the only way to properly prepare for a fire onboard is to hire fire fighting and salvage professionals to survey the vessel, come up with good practical fire fighting plans, specify the necessary fire fighting equipment to carry out the plans, install the equipment, train the crew together on the plans at a good live fire fighting center, they need to train the crew together with onshore table top exercises and onboard the vessel at least once a year. Drills also need to be professionally designed for the specific vessel and equipment. Then drills need to be routinely conducted, even when they delay operations, and the crew needs to be paid OT for the drills.

Companies need to get serious about fire safety and spend real money on it. Pencil whipping more safety forms may be inexpensive and create the false appearance of a good company safety culture, but it accomplishes nothing.


I put the C/M in charge of team #1 and 1 A/E in charge of team #2. But the 2nd mate would directly lead team #1 and the 2 A/E would lead team #2, subordinate to the senior officers

So C/M and 1 A/E go directly to the scene together and evaluate the situation while the 2nd mate and 2 A/E muster the their teams and suit up one or both teams. Once the teams are on scene the CM and 1 A/E can either take direct control of their teams, guide them as needed or just let them act independently under command of the junior officer as best fits the situation.

I seems a little confusing to describe but once practiced it’s a better fit for how crew actually responds.

I like the plan but am hesitant to send the 2 most important guys on deck to face unknown hazard without immediate backup. That’s what we did in oractice too before developing the rapid reaponse team.

The real problem we identified was that whoever showed up first quickly made themselves busy closing doors and securing ventilation… which gives them little time to observe and think during those critical firat minutes.

Onve the cm and 1st mustered at the locker they were basically free agents untill the guys suited up… gave them time to asses the situation, get instructions from the brisge, liason with the rapid reapknse team and develop a plan.

Another thing we did was order nomex coveralls for the rapid respknse team and cm and 1st. These are often sold as “wildfire coveralls” and give very basic protection that’s much better than fire resistant coveralls and less bulky (and much quicker to don) than bunker suits.

This all came about after we focused on the question on time… specifically what we wanted to accomplish between the time the alarm sounds and the first fire team gets suited up and hoses run.


In the early years of gCaptain we closely followed the emergency response plans for a new fleet of LNG supplrt vessels. They hired Tom Guldner of Marine Fire Institute (About the Marine FireFighting Institute). Tom had worked with my Dad at FDNY so we had a connection and we discussed this topic at length.

I was at first skeptical after having delt with a nimber if shoreside firefighters who made more of a mess of things than they helped solve (the rules are very different). BUT Tom did an excellent job and I became a big fan of his methods.

In short, I agree fully provided that the consultants are experts have specific expertise in ship fires.

That was my thinking as well. There’s an emergency happening and the traditional response means no action till two teams are suited up. Better to send a small team to evaluate.

Once team #2 is mustered they do not necessary suit up but can if desired go straight to the scene or staging area as well and close vents and/or run hoses. Then when suited-up team #1 shows up team #2 can either stay in the staging area and support or return to the lockers to suit up for back up.

In any case each teams can function with or without the C/M and 1 A/E.

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Whoever discovers the fire needs to start fighting it immediately. No time to suit up. Most fires can be put out very quickly before they can spread with a fire extinguisher or even a wash down hose. Loosing even one minute to prepare can allow a fire to grow to the point that the only hope is the CO2 system.

If it’s a fuel spray fire, its critical to shut off the fuel supply. Stop the engine with the broken fuel line or stop the steering pump if a blown hydraulic hose is fueling the fire.

Along with starting the fire pump, if it’s an engine room fire it’s critical to immediately make sure the sightglass valves are shutoff.

However, if a tug is Towing a barge it’s essential to manouever out of the path of the barge and to prepare to release the brake before stopping the engine or shutting down the steering.


On small ships with all American crews this maybe the case. In my experience aboard large ships with only a small percentage having advanced firefighting training and the deck department being the smallest department on the vessel and the majority of the crew picked up from the closest port and only marginally ok at speaking english… this just doesn’t happen.

And even on large American ships with minimal manning and unmanned engine rooms… the fire can generate a lot of smoke and obscure the seat of the fire before someone can get to the effected space.


Ive been on the water since 2010 and never have I been told or instructed on the sight glass valves. It’s like a lightbulb turned on.

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When the canal deluge burned on buzzards bay in 2008 one of the reasons she burned so long was the sight glasses in the engine room not being secured. Full day tanks fed the fire for a good long while.

Back in the 90’s, ABS made us replace all Sight Glass Valves with Automatic Closing Valves. IIRC, we were later told this was not a requirement but we still had to have them. This was around the same rime that ABS started cracking down on Plastic Sight Glasses, which to was a Good Thing and that was something that I would not have in my ER.

These new valves would shut themselves if it sensed a major flow, such as a Glass breaking during a Fire. We knew they worked as they had a tendency to shut in Bad Weather when we were Rocking and Rolling. This lead to some CE running with them slightly closed as that overrode the Auto Closing,

One of the thing I look at when inspecting a vessel is if the auto closing on sight glasses and D/B sounding pipes have been lashed open with cable straps or other means. (Not an unusual finding)

Another of my pet subjects are watertight doors being always closed,unless they can be closed remotely in case of flooding or fire. In the conclusion meeting I would remaid the crew that watertight doors are also fire doors and that CO 2 supply are only sufficient for the volume of the space it is supposed to cover, not for adjacent spaces as well.

On a normal OSV it would not be unusual to find all W/T doors permanently open, with the emergency escape from the bow thruster compartment (terminating in the mess room) having an open hatch. Sometime I’ll also find cables or hoses running through W/T doors as part of a “semi-permanent arrangement”.

Fire doors in the accommodations Unless they are kept open by electromagnets and close automatically in case of fire alarm, being lashed or blocked open is also a common finding, This is one of the most common findings.

But one thing that I cannot even write up as anything but a general recommendation about housekeeping and cleanliness in below deck spaces, is rags, packing materials and other items that can cause fire and/or block pump suction.
I would normally give a verbal advice to store clean rugs in a plastic container and dirty rags in a steel container, both with lids. Also to have a long handled gripper to pick up any non-metal items from inaccessible places below the floorplates:

I’m pleased to have noticed that my “campaigne” against rugs are bearing fruit, but not not so for open doors.

The book Fire Prevention, Firefighting & Fire Safety: A Comprehensive Training & Reference Manual says crew members who discover and are fighting the fire should remain and continue their efforts unless conditions are untenable or something along those lines.

But meanwhile the crew not engaged would muster / suit up / lay out hoses etc for relief and/ or back-up.

We’ve had a few small cargo fires (batteries short out on old vehicles) but they were put out by the crew working cargo.

EDIT: One big concern aboard a large ship is if the crew becomes too scattered the whereabouts of each crew member is not known there is a possibility of a delay while rounding up the crew for muster prior to using the CO2 in protected spaces.

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Auto closing sightglass valves should be required, along with Pyrex sightglasses that are well protected by guards. However, I rarely see autoclosing sightglass valves.

A while ago I made a voyage on a boat with a recent USCG courtesy inspection decal. No third party Subchapter M inspection yet. The boat had a good running EMD and an ok engineroom overall. The daytank sightglass was a piece of 1/2” clear plastic water hose that was about 2 feet too long and snaked around wires, and flopped around. No supports or guards, and ordinary ball valves on each end.

The owner was insistent that there was nothing wrong with that sightglass, and refused to have it replaced. He said:

‘We don’t have to be ABS.”

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