Saturday, April 18, 2009

From me at sea: Smoke

There's nothing I enjoy more than going out into the woods and starting
a campfire. I love the sound dry kindling makes as it starts to catch
fire and the feel of the heat growing as it is transferred to larger and
larger logs. Soon you're sitting back, watching the sky grow dark as
tendrils of smoke drift up to the trees.

Not a single one of these happy smoke induced feelings came to mind a
few days back when I answered a fire alarm on the detection panel and
saw a plume of white smoke coming out of the engine room ventilation.
There is nothing good about seeing smoke at sea unless its haze gray and
emanating from your engine's exhaust stack.

 It has just the opposite affect of a warm and bright wood fire; it
terrifies you and fills your veins with a rush of adrenaline that is
hard to find in what is normally such a safe and secure world. The
awareness that the vessel is alone, absolutely isolated from all
external help for hundreds of miles in every direction sharpens the
sense of urgency and the room for error shrinks with every second that
the fire is able to breathe and grow.

Being on watch I sounded the fire and emergency signal, ten seconds or
more on the general alarm bell, and was dispatched by the Captain to
assist. After a muster that revealed three missing crew (Whom all
ignored the signal assuming it was a false alarm!) we established
boundary cooling with fire hoses trained on the stack house in
anticipation of the worst. 

A few moments later two crewmembers in full bunker gear were donning
Self Contained Breathing Apparatus and going on air. After entering the
space the smoke was ventilated and we couldn't see flames anywhere on
the incinerator flat. Once the other hatch had been opened to the space,
allowing for a back up team with fire hose, it became obvious that the
fire was contained to the incinerator and not spreading.

Normally the incinerator burns over a period of six hours slowly
consuming paper and cardboard garbage. In this case it had been over
packed and the ensuing fire grew so hot it caused the exhaust fan to
trip out. This is why the space flooded with smoke.

Even though it was contained the Captain felt that if the temperature
continued to rise inside the incinerator than we should put it out
before the heat transferred somewhere a little less contained. The
initial attack was with CO2 fire extinguishers to replace the oxygen
supporting the fire with a blanket of inert gas. This might also cause
less damage to the incinerator itself.

While one person popped the door open the other would stick a nozzle
inside the oven. Our naivety was apparent after the fifth or sixth
bottle was discharged. Since the incinerator needed fresh air to burn
garbage the gas was just falling out the airports hidden from view doing
nothing to kill the fire.

Next a few dry chemical extinguishers were employed but the heat and
remaining cardboard was too much to have any affect. Dry chemical
extinguishes fire by cutting the chemical reaction (Rapid oxidation)
that forms the base of the "Fire tetrahedron" the three sides of which
are heat, fuel and air.

During these attempts which spanned over half an hour, it felt more like
ten minutes, there was ample confusion amongst the crew that had not
been assigned a specific task such as boundary cooling. It became
important to keep everyone not directly involved in the attack in one
place and be ready to go for more equipment. As we ran through
extinguishers I started sending out groups of crew to scavenge full ones
from the house as well as spare air bottles from the emergency stations.

After all the failed attempts with extinguishers a hose was led into the
space and in retrospect was the best agent to quickly extinguish the
fire. It only took a half strength stream of water to reduce the heat
and then flood the embers at the bottom of the incinerator. Instead of
generating huge clouds of smoke as the extinguishers had there was a
burst of steam and it was out.

There is nothing like a minor emergency to highlight the shortcomings of
a crew's preparedness for a full blown catastrophe which you pray will
never occur but must always be at the ready to mitigate. In this
instance everyone had a wake up call and there were some good
discussions after the fact. The captain held a debriefing the following
day (Instead of our ironically scheduled fire drill) and a near miss
report was written.

The big points were that the muster was incomplete until the tardy crew
sauntered out of the holds and realized that there was a reason the
bells had been blaring. I was livid over this. The offending guys felt
pretty ashamed afterwards and definitely looked like asses showing up so
late to the party.

With the urgency of getting into the space and the muster not being
complete some crew who are not assigned to fire teams ended up dressing
out. This is a problem because fire gear should be fitted to the
designated team members (Since there are only so many out fits) and non
assigned crew could wind up in gear too big or too small.

Additionally it was the fitter and more experienced crew that suited up
first, which was a good thing, but this exposed a weakness so common to
boiler plate station bills; that they designate standard duties to each
rating onboard rather than place people in roles they are either more
qualified or fit for. The fact that, in my opinion atleast, a physically
unfit QMED took twice as long as everyone else to suit up and needed me
to remind him that his flash hood goes on OVER the head straps of his
facemask showed that he probably wasn't the best candidate for a fire
team. Fighting a fire can involve very intense cardiovascular challenges
in hot, dark, smoke filled spaces.
We also noted that the crew, despite having just gone over this very
topic at our last drill, did not know how to switch out air bottles.
This is such an important skill for every "assist as directed" crew
member because they are responsible for exchanging bottles on the backs
of fire team members. I had to stop directing traffic to bleed the air
down from the hoses, and show them how to switch them out when we put
two more crew in the space for back up. Hands on skills like this need
to be practiced by the crew, not just demonstrated by an officer or

Despite our shortcomings everyone felt pretty good at the end of the
day. We all came away with a deepened respect for our isolation and
dependence on our abilities at sea. As a collective group we received an
education in how large a challenge an emergency is no matter how minor
it might turn out to be.


  1. That was an awesome, (and I would bet humbling) lesson on just how dangerous unrealistic repetitive drilling can be! It really would be a great investment to come up with alternative strategies that can be tailored to specific ship types without overregulating the whole affair into complete irrelevancy!

  2. Man you hit on it! I'm so sick of having ALL the training on board left to the deck officers to provide to an uninterested and bored crew. Yes I do accept that a large part of my job as an officer is to teach others what they've forgotten or don't know but 1) We go over the same company mandated stuff with limited resources over and over again and 2) Im not a trained trainer. When do I get my advanced training? (Sorry MMA but advanced fire fighting in Wiscasset didn't cut it)

    Naturally more shore based courses are the IMO's answer but then when do I get to go on vacation to remember why exactly I'm still going to sea?

    What we need out here is professional trainers who come onboard in port and possibly ride for a day or two and provide high quality instruction in safety, emergency and medical training for the entire crew tailored to that vessel and trade. The time and funds need to be available for this sort of on the job instruction. If I have to watch training videos with a room full of snoring sailors or talk about the difference between a dry chem and a CO2 extinguisher for the rest of my career than I will know that ISO/ISM really is a paper game to justify the existence of so many class societies.

    Increasing the quality of drills and training will go a lot further than raising quantity of the half ass training so common out here. I mean where's my smoke machine dammit?