Fire Safety

SOUND: Four bells and a jingle.

RON: Greetings mariners, and thank you for the response to the first program of this series. If all these questions were answered it would take several such hours and so I think it is best to take a single group.

From J.R. at Ketchikan comes the query: "I was told yesterday that I had to have firefighting equipment aboard my boat even though its a small outboard runabout, fourteen feet in length. I got to wondering, after that, just what I would do if the motor did catch fire and what I ought to have to put it out."

And as there are several others on the same subject, let’s talk about it.

J.R., you are being very smart for a very few sailors ever wonder just what they would do in case of fire. Instead they comply with the law and suppose that in time of emergency they will be able to meet the situation.

Of course there are quite a few around who have already met Old Man Fire at sea and Old Man Fire has filled them with such a wholesome respect that the boats owned by them are so arranged as to provide for nearly any eventuality. Those, sorrowfully enough, are in the minority. If you have ever awakened to find yourself aboard a fiery coffin with green gouts of flame leaping hungrily between yourself and the hatch you won’t take any chances in the future. It is a soul-blasting experience, particularly when the fire extinguishing equipment is on the other side of that companionway. Men who have had such an experience have seldom lived to yarn about it and Uncle Neptune has been served up with roast sailor.

Fire at sea is a theme which has made up fully as much material as reefs and storm. Fire is the most unexpected of accidents for it flares up at the least likely times and follows a course with a hunger which is assuaged only when an entire vessel has been consumed. To be aboard a vessel with fire in her hold is to be on the brink of Old Nick’s stoke hold either from nerve reaction or actual, spectacular demise. Fire eats and eats and gnaws and chews and turns a vessel from well-fitted and shaped planks into a cloud of smoke drifting over an empty sea. For violence and guile, fire holds all records.

Uncle Sam, in his anxious interest in his seagoing citizens, is very tough where fire is concerned. He issues bulletins and makes researches on the subject and has a number of stiff laws to enforce. If these laws are not obeyed and if the Coast Guard, when inspecting, finds that this is the case, heavy fines are imposed. No matter how small or how big the boat, it must be suitably equipped to prevent and fight fire.

For such a boat as J.R.’s, which comes under Class I, it is merely stated that the craft must be equipped with the means of extinguishing a gasoline fire, which means must be ready for immediate use. Most commercial fire extinguishers have been approved. The gun type is a cheap and efficient extinguisher and will serve J.R. very well. It should be placed amidships where he can get at it in case of fire, not aft, near the motor where he is liable to get scorched, reaching for it.

If J.R. has any trouble with fire in his outboard motor it will be because he has slopped gasoline around while filling it in a seaway and has either ignited the gasoline with a spark from a damp plug when starting it immediately after or because he has gotten gasoline into his bilge and has then allowed a passenger to smoke before the fumes have evaporated. A can which has a long, flexible snout will help to confine the gasoline to the tank.

But, relatively speaking, fires in such small craft as outboard motorboats, are not particularly dangerous or usual. Only when we get into larger, cabin vessels do we have much fatality from fire.

Every year a number of such vessels blow up or burn. I have seen the entire stern of a thirty-foot yacht spray fragments fifty feet in the air. Up here in Ketchikan hospital are two men right now, victims of fire. The epitaph of such boats is usually, “Dirty Bilges” but this is not always true. A vessel with a bilge clean enough to wash clothes in can still become a haven for gasoline fumes.

Any builder who would design a boat with inside vents should be soaked in benzine and ignited. As you know every gasoline tank must have such a vent, as required by law, and sometimes these vents are made so that they lead from tank into the cabin. If any man has such an arrangement on his boat, his wife may well begin to dream about how she is going to spend his insurance.

He may get by for years and then, someday, BLOWIE – toasted crab meat. Some boats have originally been built with inside tank vents and some thoughtful soul has made them into outside vents by attaching a rubber hose and leading them to the open air. I have seen several seine boats so rigged. In fact the St. Joseph, which blew itself to “seiner heaven” last summer was so fixed. Rubber hose is rarely proof against gasoline for gasoline dissolves it. The hose thus slowly disintegrates, dropping lovely little line pluggers into the tank and making ready for an engine failure come some stormy night. The hose will eventually guide gas fumes no more but allow them to settle down into the bilge where they lie in wait for a spark. A man might as well fish from a war-headed torpedo as from a fumy-bilged boat. The most enjoyable part of the subsequent explosion is that it doesn’t hand out a nice, quick death but often traps some poor devil in either the galley or engine room, giving him a slow roast until well done.

Of course even a well-vented tank may leak. Unknown to an engineer a fitting may be faulty. Some flaw in a petcock or a copper line may give way to a jar or corrosion and flood the bilge. Vibration will chafe a copper gas line through unless such spots are taped and if that happens and the engineer’s first cigarette of the morning is accompanied by a roar and crash, then it’s too late to worry about prevention. And if the cure isn’t right to hand, it’s good-bye boat and often crew as well.

On larger vessels of Classes II and III, it is required by law that they carry, as in Class I, effective means of quenching fire.

However, insurance companies generally demand that boats of Class II – over 26 feet in length – carry both a gun extinguisher and a foam type. The foam type will mix up soda and acid when inverted and expand two and a half gallons into fifteen gallons of smothering foam. These are very effective. Occasionally there is a failure of one of these foam type extinguishers for often a boatman forgets that they have to be loaded once a year to guarantee results. The process of filling is simple. Half of the guns I have seen around have either been half or completely empty and it is generally good practice to carry a refill. It is easy to put into the fun, and there is slight excuse for having an empty extinguisher gun around unless one uses it to fill stove tanks or some such thing.

I have seen several boats carrying five and six cans of refills, placed here and there about the vessel, at both ends of the engine room and near the wheel. It is not necessary to have a gun at each vantage point for that is expensive. The can is knocked open with an axe and thrown at the base of the fire. However, it would seem to be better sense to refuse the risk of not having an axe handy and transfer the contents from tin can to glass bottle – whisky bottle or whatever – when purchased. These bottles which can be found in Thomas Basin any Sunday morning, when filled, can be shied at the fire and even if they don’t break instantly will blow their corks under stress of heat.

The principle of fighting fire is, of course, robbing a fire of its oxygen. Once a free supply of air is shut off from a blaze it will go out. Throwing a blanket over a flame or putting an extinguisher refill at the bottom of it both achieve the same purpose, though one would rather use refills than more expensive and less efficient blankets.

There is also the carbon tetrachloride bomb. This is a glass globe filled with its red fluid and suspended near a place where a fire might start. The heat of the fire releases a pin which breaks the globe and the fire is put out whether the owner is aboard or not. Though commercial bombs are more efficient and can be depended upon, a light globe filled with carbon tetrachloride and suspended from the wall with picture film will serve the same purpose, though I have seen these come crashing down, fire or no fire, in a seaway much to the consternation of a strangling engineer.

Near a bunk either a bomb, a foam type or a gun type should be kept. Even the bottles I mentioned, if placed around a boat at strategic points, will cut down the risk of getting trapped in a burning boat. Firefighting equipment where it can’t be reached might as well be down at the local store, gathering dust on the shelf for all the good it will do the beleaguered boatman.

Some boats have a sprinkler system rigged with a pipe running to all parts of the vessel. A series of holes no bigger then a sixty-forth of an inch are drilled in the pipe. There is a control tank which can be reached from deck or cabin which is filled with five or six gallons of extinguisher fluid. By air pressure on the tank the fluid can then be made to spray out all through the boat, not only localizing a fire but fireproofing the rest of the vessel. Though the boat will smell of the fluid for a time it will eventually evaporate. And it is better to have a boat on top of the water than one under it.

There are many means of extinguishing fires and, when compared to the loss of a boat, even the most expensive is dirt-cheap.

Davy Jones is just sitting down there waiting for guys who have thought it cheaper to buy either inferior fire equipment or none at all.

ANNOUNCER: Thank you Captain Hubbard.

Send in your questions and problems to the “Mail Buoy” and they will be answered free of charge if accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The foremost marine architects and authorities will be consulted. Comment and criticism is invited.

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