Maritime Firefighting: Not Another Drill

Tom Guldner
Monday, December 05, 2011

OK, your ship has just pulled into port and will start unloading soon.


The first mate has told everyone that while shore side paperwork is being completed there will be a mandated fire drill to fulfill international requirements. A designated fire team hooks up several lengths of fire hose to a fire hose station on the main deck. You are the junior crew member so you are told to drag the nozzle with hose attached to the bow of your ship. When you arrive there water is started and you are told to aim the water stream over the side for 30-minutes. When you turn around, everyone else is returning to their normal duties. At the end of 30-minutes you close the nozzle, notify the mate to shut the fire pump, and you drain and re-pack the hose.


This scenario is repeated all over the world. What was learned? Nothing, unless you suddenly encounter a fire 30 meters off your starboard bow. (Actually the crew member does learn nozzle reaction and that the fire pump is working.) Of course there are exceptions. I have been aboard ships where safety and fire fighting are taken very seriously and meaningful drills are regularly conducted. But is that the majority or the minority?


If you are a vessel Master of if you own or manage a fleet of work boats or ships wouldn’t it be to your advantage to have everyone aboard regularly trained, to current standards, so they will be able to successfully fight a fire aboard your ship?


If the vessels officers and management take the drills seriously so will the crew. Drills should be designed to test the knowledge of the crew as well as testing the emergency equipment that will be needed.


Also, if every drill is for a fire in the galley then your crew may not be prepared for fires occurring elsewhere aboard and they will soon become bored by the repetition. Drills should be for random areas around your vessel and thought out well enough to make them realistic.


Any equipment that would be needed during a fire should be USED in the drill. Just looking in the fire locker to see if the personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, and tools are present will not let you know if they are serviceable.


Have all members of the fire party don the PPE and masks. (If you do not have the capability of re-filling the air bottles then just check to see that the bottles are full, turn the air on briefly to see that the mask functions properly, and then turn off the air tank.). Insure that you have all clothing required. (Coat, trousers, boots, hood, helmet, and gloves.) Check flashlights (torches) to see if batteries are needed.


Other equipment, if available, should be tested at each drill also. De-watering pumps, auxiliary fire pumps, smoke ejectors and fans, portable generators and lights, gas and O2 meters, thermal imaging cameras, fog/ foam nozzles and extensions, etc. should all be operated and used at drills.


Whatever tasks that would be expected to be accomplished at a fire should be done at the drill, or if not practical such as CO2, then at least simulated. Watertight doors should be closed to create fire and water boundaries. (Rubber seals on these doors should be checked.). Communication equipment should be used and repaired or replaced if needed. Hoses should be stretched and charged to ensure serviceability. Determine if everyone is aware of their position and duties as outlined on the vessels Station Bill.


During these drills discuss alternate routes to reach the fire and also escape routes. Discuss the dangers associated within each area.


(ER-electrical, moving machinery, falls from intermediate levels or through open grates. Galley-electrical, hot oil in deep fryer, refrigerant. Confined spaces-low O2, poisonous gasses, entrapment. Cargo areas-Modified Atmospheres (MA), falls, etc)


If possible use smoke generators to add to realism. (Insure non-toxic smoke). Your crew will not be just walking into a clear area and putting out a real fire so why do it at drills? If smoke is not possible then consider covering over the lenses on the mask face piece or have firefighter reverse their hoods. In this way they will become accustomed to searching and making their way through smoke at a real fire. (Note: keep safety personnel available at all danger points to prevent injuries. Do not allow fire crews to crawl over a ledge or into moving machinery.)


Another crucial part of a successful drill is to have a critique after the exercise. What is a critique? “It is a tool to assess firefighting, rescue, and training effectiveness, and should include tactical plans and command decisions accompanied by how well they were fol­lowed. Lessons learned from the experience should be used constructively to correct deficiencies and influence training and education.”1 The vessel’s licensed personnel have gone through some shipboard firefighting training and could lead the discussion and direct the critique to the areas where some corrections can be made. Go over any mistakes that may have been made and suggest corrective measures. Discuss alternate ways of handling the same incident. Do not use a critique as a time to place blame. Its purpose is to make corrections and possible amend existing policies and SOPs. Enlist input from the crew as to how they feel the drill could be made more interesting and/or realistic. Take notes and make changes to current SOPs to reflect anything learned during the drill. I prefer an informal critique in an area conducive to the crew relaxing and actually taking part. Consider the galley area for your critique over a pot of coffee.


Marine Firefighting Inc. is available to set up an on-going training schedule for your crews. Generally we would first conduct an evaluation drill to see what training may be required. Next we would provide the training needed to bring the crew up to current standards. We would then set up drills specifically designed for your vessel/s and run through a scenario to determine the effectiveness of the training program. Finally, we would be available for on-going training to keep your crews current with any new technology. Whether you operate ocean going ships, off-shore service vessels, harbor tugs, tow boats, ferries, or excursions vessels, don’t you want your crews trained to protect themselves, your passengers, and your vessels?


  • About the Author


Tom Guldner is a retired 33 year veteran Lieutenant of the New York City Fire Department.  Before retirement Tom spent his last nine years as Officer-in-Charge of NYC's only full time Marine Fire/Rescue boat. During that time Tom also acted as the Training Officer for the FDNY Marine Division. He held a US Coast Guard License as “Ships Master” and is a nationally certified instructor.

Tom is a participating member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) Fishing Vessel Operations and Safety panel and also their Small Working Vessel Operations and Safety panel. He is also a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Merchant Vessels.  His articles on Marine Firefighting have been published both nationally and internationally. In retirement Tom is the president of Marine Firefighting Inc, which is engaged in providing seminars and consulting on all areas of Marine firefighting for both mariners and land-based firefighters. Tom can be contacted via Email at or visit his website at


(As published in the November 2011 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News -

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