‘Abandon Ship!’

What is there to know about fire extinguishers? In the event of a fire, you just grab one pull the trigger and shoot, right? Unfortunately, this casual attitude about fire extinguishers is common, yet a fire at sea is one of the worst disasters you can experience. Any fire onboard has the potential to destroy your boat and place the lives of you and your passengers in grave danger. Hopefully you will never experience such an emergency, however, you have to be prepared to protect yourself and those onboard.


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Even a fire at a marina is dangerous and has the potential to be devastating. Photo: John Bennett

Not only do your fire extinguishers need to be maintained and in proper working order, they must be within easy reach to be of any use in the event of a flaming crisis. If you need to go looking for them once a fire has ignited, you will waste precious time during which the fire may quickly spread out of control. The U.S. Coast Guard has regulations for what it feels is the absolute minimum number and type of fire extinguishers the average boat of any length needs onboard. Are those safety precautions adequate? Neither the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) nor the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) believe that it is. They both recommend at least one more extinguisher above the U.S.C.G. minimum.

Not only do your fire extinguishers need to be maintained and in proper working order, they must be within easy reach to be of any use in the event of a flaming crisis.

The recommended, and most common extinguisher for use on boats is dry chemical. Other options include carbon dioxide (C02) and halogenated or clean agent types. CO2 extinguishers are highly effective at fighting electrical fires, while halogenated or clean agent extinguishers are a good choice when fighting Class B fires (flammable liquid). Any extinguisher you choose should be noted for use in marine applications. Make certain the label includes “Marine Type U.S.C.G.” and is listed or approved by a recognized independent testing laboratory such as UL, FM or CSA.

In Case of Fire at Sea
As master of your ship, how you handle the situation will affect the ultimate outcome and safety of you and your passengers, and the amount of damage to your vessel. The moment a fire is detected shut down all systems. Of course, there are exceptions such as when you are making a passage through a narrow channel, but the quicker you can shut down, the better. You are now dead in the water so move quickly and deliberately.

Simultaneously, grab the nearest fire extinguisher and instruct all passengers to assemble on the bow with life jackets on. Don’t neglect to put on your own. Immediately assign someone to radio a Mayday on Channel 16 with the vessel’s position, name, type of vessel, number of lives aboard and the status of the situation. Cautiously approach the fire and remember the acronym, P.A.S.S. Pull the pin. Aim at the base of the fire. Squeeze the handle. Sweep from side to side.

Many fires on vessels are small and can be easily contained, but never take chances. Every fire at sea is dangerous, and all have the potential to be disastrous. For a fire to thrive there must be three key elements: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you can remove any single variable, most of the time, you can extinguish the blaze. With the proper equipment, maintenance and safety precautions, you, too, can be prepared to fight a fire on the water.

Fire Extinguisher Maintenance Inspect extinguishers monthly:

  • Make sure seals and tamper indicators are not broken or missing.
  • Make sure pressure gauges or indicators read in the operable range. (CO2 extinguishers do not have gauges and instead must meet a minimum weight requirement.)
  • Inspect for obvious physical damage, rust, corrosion, leakage or clogged nozzles.
  • Fire extinguishers that do not satisfy these requirements or have been partially emptied must be replaced or recharged.

ABC’s of Portable Fire Extinguishers

Class A Fire
Ordinary Combustibles
(anything that burns and leaves ash)

Recommended Class A Fire Extinguishers

  • Tri-class (ABC) Dry Chemical Extinguisher
  • Foam Extinguisher
  • Water (can only be used on Class A fires!)

Class B Fire
Flammable Liquids
(fuel, lighter fluid, etc.)

Class B fires can spread by using the wrong extinguishing agent. If water is used on a Class B fire, the stream can splash the burning liquid and create more of a hazard. Foam extinguishers are highly effective when fighting Class B fires because they blanket and smother the vapor layers.

Recommended Class B Fire Extinguishers

  • Tri-class (ABC) Dry Chemical Extinguisher
  • Regular (BC) Dry Chemical
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Foam Extinguisher

Class C Fire
Electrical Equipment
(electronics, wiring, fuse panels, etc.)
When fighting a Class C electrical fire, be sure to secure the power source and use a non-conducting extinguishing agent. NEVER use a foam extinguisher on an electrical fire!

Recommended Class C
Fire Extinguishers

  • Tri-class (ABC) Dry Chemical Extinguisher

– United States Coast Guard