Whether you’re planning to set sail on the seven seas or float peacefully down a canal or river, boat fire safety needs to be one of your top concerns. It’s even more important because most fires are preventable.
Even the most experienced boaters need to prepare for the worst, and while a fire is less likely to occur on a well-maintained boat, fires are often caused by cooking and other activities.
Over the past twenty years in the UK, fires on boats have killed around thirty people and destroyed thousands of boats. To protect your crew, and your boat, our advice will help you to prevent fires as much as practically possible, and help you prepare should a fire break out.
The biggest concern for boaters is what to do if there’s a fire on their boat, and how to escape from a difficult situation.
Smoke Alarms for Boats
Just like in your home, a fire can still spread quickly even when you’re on the water, and you should take all of the same precautions. The difference is that your boat is potentially carrying flammable liquids and gases which can quickly cause a fire to take a deadly twist.
It’s important that if there is a fire on board, everyone becomes aware of it as quickly as possible. A smoke alarm is the best method for achieving this.
When selecting a smoke alarm for your boat, choose one with an optical sensor which has sealed batteries and the British Standard Kitemark. When installing the alarms, place them where you’re going to hear them, and where they can detect a fire as early as possible.
For some, it may be worth having linked smoke alarms so you’ll be alerted to a fire in the engine compartment, wherever you are. Plus, with the Cavius range of wireless alarms, you can connect a flood alarm too.
With your alarms installed on the ceiling (or wall if headroom is really limited), you’ll want to ensure you’re testing them regularly too and replacing them once the alarms reach the end of their life. A working smoke alarm is essential.
On your boat, it’s especially important to have a suitable carbon monoxide alarm fitted too. This will alert you to the poisonous gas which is often produced from cooking and heating appliances and goes undetected, while a gas detector is important if you’re going to have LPG cylinders on board.
Preventing a Fire
One of the best things you can do to prevent a fire on your boat is to ensure the fuel, gas and electrical systems are regularly inspected and maintained. This includes checking for signs of deterioration, leakage, heat damage and charring. If something isn’t quite right, ensure it is resolved as quickly as possible and refrain from using it until professionally checked.
As with all gas and electrical equipment, use them in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines and only hire trained marine engineers to carry out installation and servicing.
Good housekeeping (or should that be houseboat-keeping?) prevents accidents. Leaks, spills and vapour can ignite easily, so clean them up straight away, and a build-up of grease can cause a fire in cooking areas.
When cooking, ensure nothing’s left unattended and is turned off properly when you’ve finished. And if you opt to use portable cooking appliances or barbeques, then they shouldn’t be used on boats but taken ashore because of a lack of ventilation and the risk of embers.
Candles also shouldn’t be left unattended, extra care must be taken when smoking, and be mindful when choosing and placing furnishings.
Fire Blankets and Fire Extinguishers on Boats
A fire blanket is advised for anywhere you may find yourself cooking as they enable you safely, quickly and cleanly to put out the flames. They should be kept within easy reach and used on a small fire.
When choosing a fire extinguisher, you need to carefully consider the risks aboard your boat. With flammable liquids and gases your main concern, a powder fire extinguisher is the best multi-purpose choice, although when used in a confined space it can limit your breathing and visibility.
Only choose extinguishers which carry the correct approvals, including M.E.D Ships Wheel approval. For a private boat, commissioning and servicing—although recommended—is not required; however, you should still replace all extinguishers as recommended in the extinguisher’s guidelines.
Where servicing is required, such as when renting boats out privately, then ensure you choose a competent service engineer to carry out the work.
With extinguishers placed close to areas most at risk, such as the galley and engine bay, you should only consider tackling a fire with an extinguisher if you are confident in how to use it. This is why it is important to familiarise yourself with extinguishers on board.
For engine compartments, many choose to have an automatic fire extinguisher installed. These work similarly to a sprinkler system in that when the room reaches a certain temperature—generally around 79°C—the bulb breaks and triggers the fire extinguisher. This gives the quickest response possible to a fire to prevent fire damage and limits the risk to life as there’s no need for someone to be present.
What To Do If There Is A Fire
The advice is always going to be that when in doubt, don’t fight a fire and get yourself—and everyone else aboard—out to safety. You then stay out, call for help, and wait for the fire and rescue services.
You shouldn’t enter a smoke-filled space, and because oxygen feeds a fire, don’t open engine hatches or doors unless you have to. It’s also essential that you have enough life jackets for everyone on board, which are all kept in good condition.
It is vital to have an emergency escape plan, and for everyone to know it. This will include informing people of where emergency valves and switches are, keeping exits clear with keys to hand, and not bolting hatches from the outside if people are inside.
When you’re out on the water, you should track your location so you can tell the emergency services where you are if needed. To call for help, you shouldn’t rely on your mobile phone always to have signal or charge, and as such you should have a charged-up, handheld and waterproof VHF radio as well.
If you’re inland or moored near land, then simply get everyone off and dial 999 immediately. When at sea and off-shore, you should move everyone on deck as far away from the fire as possible, with everyone wearing life jackets, and notify the Coastguard with a Mayday call or distress signal.
For more boating safety advice, including fire safety, visit the Boat Safety Scheme website.
At Fire Protection Online, we sell smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, portable and automatic fire extinguishers, and even torches and flood alarms.