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Article: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

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    Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    66 Comments by Peter Copley Published on 12th January 2021 12:35 PM
    An unwanted fire anywhere is a bad thing – An unwanted fire at sea is downright dangerous. A fire safety poster I once saw on one of my ships said; ‘Remember! At Sea, You Cannot Call for the Fire Brigade.’
    I took part in numerous lifeboat and fire drills on British ships. My role in the drills was pretty basic; put stuff away or roll up the fire hose after the drill, etc. However, fire drills on the ‘Flag of Convenience’ ships I sailed on as a radio officer, were few and far between. Let’s face it, fires don’t start on these ships, do they? Or maybe they do.
    Another fire prevention poster I saw in the Mann Island Shipping Federation Offices, Liverpool read;
    ‘Bright Sparks really rather dumb, smoking near an oily drum. Doesn’t he know the oil is tinder? Soon he’ll be a ruddy cinder.’
    The poster showed a caricature picture of a sailor smoking a cigarette near an oil drum. Well, whether it was someone smoking near some oily rags or spontaneous ignition of oily rags in a bin, I don’t know, but a fire started in the engine room of my ship the SS Sapho 1 as we were halfway across the Atlantic. The smoke from the fire was enough to send the engineer and his oiler, coughing and spluttering, from the engine room. The smoke pouring out of the lantern light sent the South American and African sailors into a frenzy, rushing to the lifeboats, wanting to abandon ship. I myself had the MF transmitter warmed up, ready to send out an SOS if need be, had the fire got out of control. This wasn’t necessary, the Greek chief engineer organised a fire-fighting party and they dealt with the blaze. Luckily it was confined to a pile of rags in a storeroom. Although only a relatively minor incident, I really did admire the engineers, wearing nothing more protective than asbestos overalls and a smoke-hood, climbing down into the engine room dragging the fire hose with them. I thought at the time, climbing down through smoke and heat must be like climbing down a ladder into hell. A friendly flickering flame has a bad habit of spreading very quickly into a major conflagration. With flashovers and backdrafts, fire can, and often does, spread faster than a man can run.
    Some years later I left the sea and at the age of 28, I joined the fire brigade. In the nearly 29 years I was in the service, I attended 100s if not 1000s of fires. Fires ranging from a garden hut on fire to a six-storey mill blazing from end to end and bottom to top requiring 20 pumps and 3 turntable ladders to deal with it. From the rank of fireman (Firefighter for the PC brigade) to Station Commander I attended fires in canal boats, cars, hotels, houses, flats, schools, offices, factories, shops, woods, and on the moors. One fire, in particular, reminded me of the fire in the engine room of the SS Sapho 1. It was a fire in a sub-sub-basement of a Bradford city-center office block. My team and I had the latest fire kit, gloves, anti-flash hoods, deep penetration breathing apparatus sets, thermal imaging cameras, and high-pressure hose-reels. I staggered out of the building, totally exhausted, I just rolled over in the gutter, too tired even to take off my face mask. It was then I remembered the two engineers at sea, wearing their old asbestos Fearnaught suits, wearing a cumbersome smoke-hood, air fed by a pair of bellows manufactured in Germany in 1937, climbing down through the heat and smoke to fight a fire deep in the engine room. My heart goes out to men at sea who have to fight a fire without the benefit of being able to call up 20 fire engines to help them.
    PC R701198

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Fire at sea has to be the very worst of all disasters, surrounded by water but no power for pumps.
    No matter how good the emergency drill may be there will always be one who takes no notice and there will also be some equipment that oif not serviced regularly will not work when required.

    I think most of us were lucky in our time, not too many fires or abandon ship, but modern day ships tend to have more problems now.
    Containers over the side, ships running on to rocks, ships with crew that maybe are not good enough.

    Times change, but not always for the best.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Quote Originally Posted by happy daze john in oz View Post

    I think most of us were lucky in our time, not too many fires or abandon ship, but modern day ships tend to have more problems now. Containers over the side, ships running on to rocks, ships with crew that maybe are not good enough. Times change, but not always for the best.
    John there are currently more than 55000 ships traversing the world's oceans employing more than 1.5 million seafarers, the number of major incidents is miniscule compared to those which make successful voyages. So these 'Johnny Foreigners' must be doing something right, it is not all down to luck. Many perhaps the majority of Masters of large VLCCs and LCVs are Indian/Greek/Philippino, large cruise liners mainly Dutch/Italian/Americans with a smattering of British. We used to think of ourselves as creme-de-la creme, and perhaps we were, well in our own minds anyway, mainly I suspect because at one time we were in the majority. Currently we (UK) are approx 16,000 out of 1.5 million

    Fires at sea are now normally beyond the seafarers control, no matter what their nationality, as most are containerised in their origin and if in the middle of a stow very hard, more like impossible, to get at, and if you do get at them, all you can do is try to cool them. No such thing as a water lance to cut into them (as per fire brigade) and steam smother the fire there-in. Engine room fires are something else again with UMS, but even if fully manned it is almost impossible to predict a crankcase explosion (I stand to be corrected) but if predictable they shouldn't happen. In most cases fires at sea are beyond the seafarers control in their inception and almost impossible to reach at the seat.

    Perhaps like others on here I have been unfortunate enough to fight shipboard fires wearing that infamous Siebbe Gorman helmet and its leather neckpiece, relying on someone else to pump air to you through a bellows and hoping that your signal line doesn't get trapped so that the bellows operator doesn't know your situation. If I remember correctly, one sharp tug=pay out more line, two tugs=pull in line, three or more tugs=get me out of here, fast!, all the time hoping that the water supply on that wriggling iron hard hose on fire pressure doesn't cease.

    I have as much respect for today's seafarers, as I did for those in our day, and getting fire fighting crews together with today's minimum crews I do not envy them at all.

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Thats as i remember it at sea Ivan, nowadays of course self contained compressed air sets are the norm, and ships fires were always the dreaded jobs when i was in the Fire service, and the two fire fighting tugs in the Solent with hydraulic platforms and monitors. They were the Gatcombe and the Vectis, gone now, so no idea what is available now, kt
    R689823

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Quote Originally Posted by Keith Tindell View Post
    Thats as i remember it at sea Ivan, nowadays of course self contained compressed air sets are the norm, and ships fires were always the dreaded jobs when i was in the Fire service, and the two fire fighting tugs in the Solent with hydraulic platforms and monitors. They were the Gatcombe and the Vectis, gone now, so no idea what is available now, kt
    I forgot to mention the incredible strength sapping heat/steam in those confined steel spaces we operated in, and also my hats off to the bellows operators who never let you down, even though their shoes may have been melting, as they also had to be close to the fire because of the limitations of the air supply hose length.

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Very fortunate in my time never to have had to wear that system in anger Ivan, only on drills, that was bad enough though, dragging hose etc up and down engine room steps etc, kt
    R689823

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Ahhh – fire on ships. A real concern of mine, and am very glad to see so much genuine interest in this.

    The last 20 + years of my working life I spent as a Marine Consultant, carrying out hundreds of surveys on (mainly offshore) vessels all over the world. Every Surveyor has ‘specialities’ normally born from traumatic experiences. Mine were fire and sinking, so I would try to ensure that all aspects regarding the prevention, and the control of, these particular scenarios were in good order.

    I could write a lot about horrors that I found, from fire detection systems that had been switched off (because the alarm kept sounding); emergency fire pumps that took over an hour to produce water; watertight doors rusted in the open position, but I think a general opinion on what I found would perhaps be of more use to the forum.

    These are generalisations remember!
    1. The standard of the checklist used to routinely inspect the equipment was of huge importance. A good checklist meant the equipment was better maintained than a poor one. I would always look at the paperwork before my ‘walk round’ and if the monthly checklist for fire fighting equipment simply had ‘Check fire hoses’ as one item I would be alerted as to what to expect. If, however, all the hose locations were itemised, and check boxes for the hose test; hydrant; couplings and spanners included, again I would know what to expect, but this time in a positive way. All variations between these two example checklists reflected directly on the standard of maintenance of the equipment.
    2. The operating instructions for equipment on older vessels was frequently found to be in a language other than that of the native language of the crew. (and some not so old vessels – one newish Norwegian ship still had the inert gas instructions in as-built Chinese).
    3. On board culture. If you arrived on the bridge to find the smoke detector covered in plastic because the Captain smokes then you could anticipate with some degree of certainty what you were likely to find.
    4. Drill quality. Drill were frequently carried out only to satisfy the legal requirements. And I’m not surprised – the drill matrix on most vessels + 500 GRT is quite mind blowing. A good drill should be as realistic as possible, and a learning experience for all crew.

    All the above would impact on the ability of the crew to quickly gain control over a fire scenario. I really admire all seafarers these days – especially in the current situation when ‘crew change’ is something of a lottery at best. I started at sea in 1966 and do not envy those at sea these days (even if they do have SCBA!). Most ships would be stretched to make up a really effective fire and rescue team, and this is not the fault of the personnel aboard, but I believe it is of manning levels which have been allowed to drop.

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    I think a fire on a ship is of concern to all on that ship and every crew I have sailed with are well aware of. However you have hit the nail right on the head with the manning of vessels today , the question is who condoned and passed these laws that most seafarers know were incorrect ? Fire fighting on a ship is only part of a Seamans duties and a ship does not run on the premise that one should spend all the time fighting fires by amateurs with reduced manpower. If your job was purely fire fighting you will be purely concentrated on that , seamen also have other duties to contend with . Today I look on fire fighting purely for the safety of Seamans lives and nothing else. If in port I would call the fire brigade and let the professionals deal with the fire. You may not agree with this as you probably won’t but is too late to convert my way of thinking as don’t have to deal with it anymore. Thank God.
    Cheers JS
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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Quote Originally Posted by Kenneth Crawford View Post
    2. – one newish Norwegian ship still had the inert gas instructions in as-built Chinese).
    .
    During the 70's as a supt, I had to change a Norwegian flag vessel to British flag, what I thought would be an easy job turned out not to be so. Their safety aspects turned out to be much more lax than our own, too many to list here, but some very surprising. Lifeboat adverse launching was only 12 degrees as opposed to our 15 degrees, trying to get that extra 3 degrees incurred some substantial structural alterations. Emergency fire pump (EFP) situated in ER, definitely a no-no in our regs, naturally the EFP lines ran through the ER, again a no-no in UK, so completely new installations required. Fire hoses too short (have to be able to stretch to next hydrant minimum. No emergency exits from oil fired galley. Portholes in most cabins too small to allow emergency egress. Vessel had had alterations previously but no new stability data, no original grain stability data, lots more. including new inclination tests (not cheap) fortunately took the next Scandi flag transfer vessel at building stage, so these things were ironed out easily.But it all shattered an illusion that we held at sea in 50's/70's that Scandinavians were well found vessels,

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    Default Re: Fire! Fire! Fire Down Below.

    Fire drill brings back some comical memories for me as a Cadet in the 60's! I remember being assigned to the emergency water pump on the Poop deck, it had to be started by turning a crank handle, but I wasn't warned that it had a terrible kick, it almost broke my thumb! On another occasion I was on 12 to 4 watch when the Captain decided to do a surprise fire drill. The alarm was sounded and a few minutes later all the after crew were sitting in the lifeboats rather than going to their fire stations, I don't know how they planned to lower the boats, as they were all sitting in them!

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