One of the most severe threats to a vessel’s safety is fire on board. In this section, we will give some advice on general fire mitigation tactics and notification procedures. Further, we will address general rules for immediate action and firefighting for crew members in different parts of the vessel. Four common fire-extinguishing agents are examined and secondary damages caused by fire are detailed at the end of the section.


Fire Mitigation

The most important measures to prevent and limit the extent of fire are:

  • Avoid any accumulation of oil waste. Floors, tank tops and bilges must be kept clean and drip trays must be emptied regularly.
  • Beware of self-igniting objects – oily cotton waste, rags, sawdust, etc.
  • Check pressurized oil piping systems regularly.
  • Repair defective or insufficient insulation of hot surfaces immediately.
  • Repair defective electric installations immediately.
  • Do not cover electric heaters.
  • Maintain boiler installations for best operational performance.
  • Constant surveillance of deep fat fryers. Ventilation and exhaust hoods must be kept clean.
  • Place a dedicated person on fire extinguishing duty during use of welding or torch cutting equipment. Beware of adjoining rooms and establish fire watch procedures when the vessel is at dry dock.
  • Be careful when smoking. Smoking causes fire accidents. Crew is urged not to smoke in the bed. Avoid smoking in the holds and near hatches during loading and unloading.
  • Carefully extinguish cigarettes prior to disposal. This also applies to cigarettes thrown overboard, as the wind may carry them into open portholes, air pipes, etc.
  • Instruct the watchman on possible fire hazards and how to contact firefighters when at port.
  • Check all fire dampers and fire detectors regularly.


    If a fire occurs, the Master must notify the Owners immediately, with at least the following information:

  • The condition, full name and occupation of any injured crewmember
  • The position, course and speed of the vessel
  • The current weather conditions and forecast for the next 48 hours
  • Ship manoeuvrability
  • The location of the fire
  • The type of material fuelling the fire
  • Nearby flammable and combustible threats
  • Any measures which have been taken
  • Any assistance required
  • An evaluation of the current situation

    General Firefighting Rules – Immediate Action

  • If a fire is detected on board, the fire alarm should be activated and firefighting procedures implemented immediately.
  • The crew shall take their assigned firefighting positions immediately, as per the vessel’s fire drill.
  • Fire pumps in the engine room shall be activated and the engineer shall oversee that fire pipeline valves are open and that the pumps are maintaining the necessary pressure.
  • The Master of the vessel shall decide upon and monitor all evacuation procedures, i.e., preparing eventual use of lifesaving equipment. If the fire is near the lifeboats, these should be lowered immediately.
  • Whenever possible, the vessel must reduce the risk of spreading the fire and smoke by best positioning itself in relation to wind and waves.
  • Immediate action must be taken to stop the inflow of air to areas on fire.
  • Limit the fire by preventing the additional ignition of other materials and regulate combustible materials to below ignition temperature.
  • Anyone exposed to toxic fumes and smoke should be taken outside into the fresh air as soon as possible.

    Firefighting by Crew Members

    When fighting a fire, it is always essential to get as close as possible to the source of the fire. Hosing down smoke and flames can cause further damage and has little effect as a means of extinction. Always check whether the fire can be better attacked from a lower deck.

    For safety purposes, the crew shall always work in teams of at least two. Teams are recommended to use guiding lines if unable to follow the hose line back to safety. Two persons shall operate a hose with a nozzle. One shall aim the nozzle and the other shall control and keep the hose free from entanglement and the fire itself. Hoses can explode and this danger must be taken into account. Auxiliary hoses and firefighting crew are advisable when entering a burning area.

    If a fire is confined to one space, do not access that area by opening a door, etc., before effective firefighting measures are completely in place. When using water as an extinguishing agent, always bear in mind that large amounts of water could adversely affect the stability of the vessel, even making it capsize. Whenever possible, measures must be taken to remove excess water by pumping or drainage, especially when firefighting on upper decks. Beware of spurting jet flames, in particular, around the upper part of the door. Approach the fire as low as possible along the floor.

    Gas cylinders and other containers holding compressed or liquefied gases constitute an explosion risk when exposed to high temperatures and should be immediately removed from the place of fire. Cylinders that have been exposed to heat should be checked by authorised personnel before use.

    Fire often produces toxic carbon monoxide (CO) which is odourless and lethal if inhaled. Due to the risk of gas explosions, use extreme precaution when opening the door of a room on fire or filled with smoke. Remember always to kneel down when opening a door where smoke is suspected on the other side of the door.


    Fire in Different Places of the Vessel

    1. Fire in the cargo holds

    Fire in non-concealed holds (open hatches) should be immediately extinguished by water or foam. When opening concealed holds believed to be on fire or extinguished, open as few covers as possible to avoid explosions or other dangers. Fire hoses must be accessible and precautionary measures must be taken to close the hatches immediately if required. Hatches may be opened if the fire has been adequately detained and where heat (regulated by heat monitoring equipment) is no longer considered hazardous. Do not open hatches if there are insufficient firefighting agents (such as carbon dioxide) on board. Wait until reaching port and when sufficient quantities of firefighting agents have been brought on board.

    Fires in holds can usually be smothered or controlled by sealing the area and filling it with carbon dioxide. However, this procedure should not be followed if the cargo consists of nitrates, chlorates and other substances with a high oxygen content. In these cases, water should be used as an extinguishing agent. Fires on deck in cargo containers or on open ro-ro decks should be extinguished by means of water mist, foam or powder, depending on the nature of the cargo. For more information on inflammable cargo, see: International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (published by IMO).


    2. Fire in engine rooms

    Engine room firefighting, depending upon the circumstances, shall begin immediately using either portable foam, carbon dioxide or dry powder extinguishers. If these efforts prove to be unsuccessful, on board firefighting equipment and systems must be activated immediately. Turn off the ventilation and close all openings to limit the intake of air into the engine room. Depending on the current situation, activate all the ship’s quick-closing devices and immediately stop the operation of fuel oil transfer and purifying equipment (such as pumps).


    3. Fire while in port

    On-duty ship personnel must know how to contact and seek onshore assistance. It is most likely that onshore fire departments will assume responsibility for any fire on a ship when in port. The ship’s Master, who is responsible for the crew, cargo and vessel, is advised to establish the best relationship possible with the designated fire chief. The Master alone is responsible for all issues associated with ship stability. The vessel’s fire plan should be reviewed with the fire authorities prior to firefighting.


    4. Vessel stability during firefighting

    Remember, excess water intake through firefighting will affect the stability of the vessel and all possible measures must be taken to prevent capsizing. This particularly applies to car-carriers and ro-ro vessels. The following measures must be taken while fighting ship fires which require large quantities of water:

  • Fill all tanks as much as possible to ensure increased ship stability
  • If necessary, ground the vessel to prevent possible capsizing
  • If grounding is impossible and the ship’s stability is threatened, the Master shall weigh up the pros and cons of capsizing or damage from excessive water intake during firefighting and decide the best course of action accordingly.

    Fire Extinguishing Agents

    For combustion to take place, three elements must be in place: combustible material, oxygen (atmospheric air) and heat. When any one of these basic elements is removed, the fire goes out. Fire extinguishers generally starve a fire of oxygen (by the use of carbon dioxide, foam, dry powder or a fire blanket), but can also remove heat from the fire, for example, by pouring water over it.

    Water Water is the most frequently used fire-extinguishing agent and has the unique ability to bind heat, and hence, cool. Water mist extinguishers have a fast cooling effect on most materials, especially small fires caused by oil and other inflammable liquids. Water is primarily used to extinguish flammable ‘solid’ materials, e.g. fire in accommodation.
    Foam Foam is widely used to extinguish large fires caused by petrol, oil, tanks etc.
    Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Carbon dioxide smothers fire in holds, tanks, engine rooms and other confined spaces. NB! Masks with smoke filters (’gas masks’) do not protect against carbon dioxide and suffocation can occur. Carbon dioxide is odourless and is heavier than air, thus filling a room from ground up. All rooms must be completely aired prior to access, as well as evacuated before the release of Carbon Dioxide. CO2 portable extinguishers are very effective against fire in electrical installations and electronics.
    Powder Powder extinguishers adequately extinguish smaller petrol and oil fires. There is the additional danger of electric shock involved when extinguishing electrical fires and powder should only be used in the case of an absolute emergency.


    Final Extinction of the Fire

    Once a fire has been brought under control and is largely extinguished, final fire extinction and clean up procedures must be carried out. Final extinction should involve the smallest amount of water possible. All materials and objects that were on fire are to be moved to a non-risk area for complete extinction or future disposal at land-based facilities. After the fire has been extinguished, the specific area must be monitored to avoid any possible risk of a new fire emerging. If CO2 has been used as an extinguishing agent, the room shall be kept closed for a minimum of 24 hours.


    Secondary Damages Caused by Firefighting and the Fire Itself

    The burning and heating of synthetic materials, such as PVC plastic in cable insulation, creates hydrogen chlorides, which, when combined with humidity, produce hydrochloric acid. The combustion of fuel oils, lubricating oils and rubber may produce sulphuric acid. Corrosion caused by acids presupposes the presence of, among other things, humidity in the air. Decreasing the humidity level may be achieved by means of hot air or dehumidification. Whenever possible and justifiable from a safety point of view, generators, electric panels, electric motors and electronic equipment should be kept running as the heat developed greatly reduces the progress of corrosion. Further, any air-cooled electric engines or generators damaged by acid when not in operation, should be thoroughly checked by a technician prior to starting. Though acids and their salts may be partially eliminated through freshwater rinsing, there is still a risk that high humidity levels will accelerate the corrosive process in equipment. This should be evaluated by experts.

    Powder is highly corrosive. Remove as much powder as possible from any stationary/technical object, preferably by using a vacuum cleaner. Powder in oil products may adversely affect oil. The oil should be analysed or replaced. For further cleaning, follow instructions under para 2.

    Saltwater contains various highly corrosive salts, primarily sodium chloride. All objects in contact with saltwater must be thoroughly washed down with large quantities of freshwater, preferably hot, and then thoroughly dried – the most effective agent being hot air. Equipment with fans (electric motors, transformers, generators) should never be started until thoroughly tested.

    As soon as possible, experts should evaluate the scope and extent of corrosive damage, especially chloride encrustation, to determine the correct remedial action. The crew should only initiate cleaning procedures themselves if experts can reach the vessel in reasonable time, and cleaning should only be done under expert guidance. Incorrect cleaning can be more detrimental than none.