Marine Firefighting Inc.
Newsletter # 18
Something New At Ship Fires -
By Tom Guldner
As taught in my Shipboard Firefighting seminars, Firefighters benefit from the watertight construction of most ships because that feature not only restricts water, it also restricts fire travel. After any life hazard has been addressed, one of the first actions at a ship fire for either mariners or land-based firefighters should be to confine the fire and protect exposures by closing all watertight openings to hold the fire to the area of origin. The steel construction of most ships will allow you to confine the fire to this area whereas at a structural fire this would not be possible due to the less restrictive construction.
The Firefighter, at a ship fire, has been able to take advantage of this "buttoning up" of the ship in order to give them time to set up an attack strategy. Areas surrounding the fire area still have to be monitored but fire spreading vertically from deck to deck is rare on modern steel ships. At least it has been rare in the past.
Something new has been added to entice customers onto cruise ships. The few private balconies from cruise ship cabins had been only within the reach of the super rich traveler in the past. Now the cruise industry advertises your own private balcony from all outer cabins. It is a wonderful thing to be able to look out your cabin's many picture windows and walk through your own glass door to your private balcony. But there is a down side to this wonderful amenity. Fire!
When a fire is detected on one of these cruise ships the same procedure of closing all watertight doors to that area is still the normal procedure. The problem now is that instead of an exterior steel bulkhead containing all of the heat, flame, and smoke, we now have large glazed areas which may fail early and allow the heat and flame to escape the immediate fire area. As the flames leap out of the cabin they roll along the underside of the balcony above and are able to lap around that structure and possible cause the glazed area of the cabin above to shatter or melt. We now have fire on two decks. This is "auto exposure" that land based firefighters have always had to deal with at structural fires. Another problem is that many of these balconies are only constructed of lightweight aluminum and will melt and fail early during a fire. This will allow the auto exposure to proceed more rapidly. If the fire is not extinguished at an early stage it may leap from one deck to another all the way up the side of the ship.
I have been explaining this problem with these balconies to Firefighters at my seminars for over five years.
A recent fire aboard the M/V Star Princess graphically brings out this problem. Photos of the ship, as it was brought into port after the fire, show the charring pattern up the side of the ship. Looking closely at the photos you will notice that there is a large section in the chard area that does not have balconies. That is because they had melted. Due to copyright laws I am not able to reproduce the photos here but if you do an Internet search for "star princess fire" you can see for yourselves. That fire is also thought to have started on a balcony. "The fire aboard the Star Princess erupted on a balcony of a private room and within 10 minutes spread to three decks and ultimately damaged more than 280 cabins -- twice as many as previously thought, according to the Southampton, England-based investigative agency."
Reports now indicate that there may have been some combustible plastic material on the balconies. The following from an Associated Press article, "Investigators from the British agency investigating this fire reported that the fire spread rapidly along the balconies, and within 10 minutes had spread to the upper decks. The heat of the fire shattered the glass in the ship's stateroom balcony doors but the blaze was contained by a fire-smothering system fitted in the staterooms, the report said. As the fire spread, large amounts of dense black smoke from the readily ignitable materials on the balconies hampered passenger evacuation, the report said. The agency recommended stepped up vigilance by crews, including lookouts and additional fire patrols." The report went on to say, "Current regulations fail to take into account that cruise lines have been building ships with greater numbers of balconies for the past decade, according to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. For instance, cabins must be equipped with automatic sprinklers, but no such requirement applies to balconies."
The cruise industry has had an exemplary safety record in recent years. In no way am I stating that these ships are not safe. I would also want a balcony if I could afford one. We must just use this incident as a warning that something needs to be done to counter this fire spread problem with balconies. To their credit, Carnival Cruise Lines as well as the entire cruise industry is taking this situation very seriously. Carnival has immediately ordered increased continuous surveillance of all balconies from the vessels "wing bridges" and additional security is being instituted in the form of watchmen below decks. The cruise industry, the US Coast Guard, the ship building industry, classification societies, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will have to take a close look at how these balconies are going to be dealt with in the future. Many people are now calling for sprinklers to be installed on the balconies of these cruise ships. This might be of help if the ship was at dock but with the winds involved while cruising the open ocean, sprinklers may not be effective while underway.
The first thing that came to mind when I viewed photos of this fire was a tool introduced to the New York City Fire Department to fight a Hi-Rise fire from the floor above. It was a long pipe with a "U" shaped bend at the end and a large caliber nozzle attached to the tip. The pipe would be extended out of the window above, rotated so that the nozzle was pointing at the window below, and then water was started. Of course you would have to insure there was no life hazard in the area where you were directing the stream. I am certain that many measures will be brought up to combat this problem but until then, Firefighters (both marine and land-based) will now have to deal with "Auto-Exposure" as ship fires.
PS At times, these balconies can also be an asset to Firefighters. If the ship is at dock when there is a fire Firefighters can rescue a trapped passenger from an outside cabin balcony via aerial ladder or portable ladder from the dock. Use of a life rope repelling from a balcony above can be used at a dock or while the vessel is underway to affect a rescue. If access is impossible from an inside corridor you may consider an elevated platform's exterior stream from the dock or you could actually advance a hose line into the cabin from the balcony. Caution must be exercised to prevent pushing the fire into uninvolved areas. Never use an outside stream if there is an interior attack in progress.
The field of Firefighting is never static. Each fire we go to is different and there is always something new to learn. We learn every day we are alive.
Remember, "The Day You Stop Learning Is the Day They Put You In the Ground!"
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