Marine Firefighting Inc.


Newsletter # 20
Please do not reprint in any form without the permission of the author.

Use Caution When Operating at

Tow Boat and Barge Fires

There are waterways other than our oceans and harbors that need to be protected from fire. In the USA and many countries throughout Europe there are inland waterways which are still carrying on commerce in the twenty first century. Here in the US when I mention inland waterways to any of the coastal fire departments or marine companies they think of the old canals which carried goods to major ports in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They mistakenly believe that those old waterways have been either filled in or relegated to only transporting pleasure boaters on a beautiful Sunday afternoon cruise.

But to those in the know, our inland waterway system is a vibrant combination of rivers and canals which crisscross the country bringing commodities of all kinds from inland destinations to major ports for distribution within the US or export to foreign destinations. There are over 29,627 miles of inland waterways with 276 lock chambers lifting 6,100'. The waterways maintain a 9 foot minimum depth. There are over 625 million tons of commodities carried on US inland waterways which break down as follows.....- 27% coal - 24% petroleum - 19% other raw materials - 15% food & farm products - 8% chemicals - 7% manufactured products.1

The Inland Waterway is a system consisting of the Mississippi river and its tributaries including the Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, and Tennessee rivers, and its connecting rivers as well as the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) - waters along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Corpus Christi, Texas to Florida.

Marine Firefighting Inc. has provided our "Tow Boat and Barge Fire" seminars to Fire Departments along our inland waterway system for the past 8-years. Our most recent seminar was hosted by the Quad Cities Annual Firefighting Class held at the Rock Island Arsenal in the middle of the Mississippi River just outside of Davenport Iowa. Students in this seminar came from across the river in Missouri and as far away as Wisconsin. The 2-day seminar followed the same outline as our Shipboard Firefighting seminar with the exception of the ship familiarization presentations.

Nomenclature aboard a river tow boat and barge differs somewhat from that on ocean going ships but the basics of bow, stern, port, and starboard are the same. Many times these "Brown Water Mariners" as the river work boat crews are called have a list of terms all their own. Just as in the shipboard classes I explain that fore firefighters it is not necessary to become experienced tow boat and barge crew members, but it is still important that we understand some of the more common terms that we can expect to hear.

Just as in shipboard firefighting, even if the main cargo is not hazardous there may be hazardous materials routinely carried on river tows for the maintenance of machinery or to effect repairs. Of course there are also tows made up of barges carrying all types of hazardous cargos. Chemicals for the manufacture of fertilizers for our nations farming areas as well as petro chemicals for refineries can be found inter mixed with barges containing relatively safe general cargos.

Since Sept. 11, 2001 regulations have been enacted that regulate the transport of these hazardous cargos. In fact the shipper and/or the tow boat company must resister the hazardous cargo with the Coast Guard and the progress of that barge will be monitored. For the firefighter this may be a benifit in that we may be able to detirmine the Haz-Mat cargo by giving the Coast Guard the number of the barge involved.

Many of the smaller Fire Departments located along the river may not have a Haz-Mat response that could handle a large scale incident. During my seminars I suggest locating all resources in your area. Many times local municipalities must request county and even State response. The Coast Guard may be able to send a regional Has-Mat Team as part of one of the several National Strike Force Units around the country. The shipper of the Haz-Mat product or its manufacturer may also have some type of response either directly or through a third party responder who is contracted to provide such service.

The time to find out about what resources are in your area is now. Do not wait until an incident overwhelms your limited resources and only then try to locate outside agencies who may be able to help. Marine Firefighting Inc. also provides consulting services to evaluate your response capability and to help set up pre-fire plans and perform a risk analysis of your section of the river to locate special "target hazards" within your response district. We can use that risk analysis survey to create a data base of all the river front commercial occupancies containing all the information an incoming incident commander would need to know.

Here are just a few for the safety points which are brought out in my seminar.....

Access to a river Tow Boat is not a major problem due to the low "freeboard"2 but this does not mean it is necessarily a safe operation. Lack of safety rails, tripping hazards, and many tow lines with extreme tension make this boat a place on which you must use caution.

However, the tow boat is a much safer platform to use to fight a barge fire than actually boarding the barge for extinguishment. A tow is made of of many barges. Some may be full and riding low in the water while others are "empties" requiring more of an effort to get aboard either from the deck of the tow boat or from the deck of your fire boat. And that's just the start of the hazards. Gaps between barges, areas where there is a barge missing from the middle of a string of barges is called the "Notch" (see photo left) can allow crew or your firefighters to fall overboard.

Another area where you might fall in is lovingly known as a "Duck Pond" (see photo right). It is formed when the flat end of a "boxed" barge butts against the sloped end of a "raked" barge.

If at all possible you will want to operate your hose stream from the safety of the tow boat, the deck of your fire boat, or the deck of another tow boat. Fires in open hopper barges can be attacked in this manner. If your firefighters or boat crew must stretch a hose line from barge to barge in order to reach the fire they should do so in the safest possible way. Do not walk or drag hose along the outboard (water side) of the barges on the outside of the tow. Either walk along the inboard barges or along the inboard side of the outside barges. Remember, there are no safety railings. If you are working near the water side then just one slip or trip could be your last. And there are many things to trip on when walking on these barges. If you look again at the photo above right of the "Duck Pond" you can see the lashing cables and the ratchet bar laying on the deck. The ratchet bar is used to tighten up the cable lines that hold the tow together. These tools can be found in any location on the deck of a barge.

Something I just learned at the recent Quad Cities Annual Firefighting Class mentioned above was brought out during my seminar when discussing hazards on barges. One of the students, in addition to being a land-based-firefighter, was also a deck hand on river tows along the Upper Mississippi River. When discussing tripping hazards on barges he mentioned that the manhole covers on many older barges could be loose. Stepping on the side of one might cause it to flip over. This could result in you falling as your leg went through the opening or causing injury as the cover completed its flip and smashed into your shin. So there is another thing not to do on a barge. Do not step on any manhole covers.

Speaking of manhole covers we are reminded that they cover manholes. These are access ways into the ballast or saddle tanks on the sides of barges. They are the reason the barge stays afloat. These compartments on the sides and bottom of barges just contain air (most of the time!). This is another place where firefighters don't belong. There is nothing down there to burn so, unless there is victim down there firefighters have no reason to enter. Barge crews have to periodically de-water these spaces. For firefighters, these are "Confined Spaces" and therefore should only be entered by specially trained "Confined Space" rescue personnel. If you qualify as such and must enter a barges ballast tank you should be wearing your Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).

Remember before I said that these tanks contain air (most of the time?) Well there are times when that air contains much less oxygen than the 21% normally found in the air. Oxygen can be burned up by rusting of the barges walls or decomposition of some other materials which may have found its way in there. The product that the barge is carrying might also play a part in either reducing the oxygen in the ballast tanks or pushing other gasses into the tanks that can also kill you. Coal gives off a combustible gas that can seep into these tanks through small holes or cracks. Ask any barge deck hand how often water finds its way into the tanks and must be removed. If water can get in from the outside then cargo gases and liquids can enter also.

As in all of my seminars, the Golden Rule for Firefighter safety is, "If there is no life at risk then don't risk yours." If it's only a fire and not a rescue then think of some other way to operate on that barge fire other than the way that unnecessarly risks the lives of your Firefighters.

My "Tow Boat and Barge Fire" seminar covers much more than the few items I am able to include in a short article. The seminar goes over Types of Tow Boats and Barges - Size Up - Access and Egress - Water Supply - Getting rid of that water (de-watering) - Incident Command System (the importance of) - Communications - Tactics showing the direct attack for both on-deck and below-deck fires - Indirect attack by use of CO2 - Large scale foam operations. The basic seminar runs for 2-days but I recommend we include an on-board visit of a local tow boat and or barge. Additionally we can also set up realistic fire scnarios.

This seminar can also be adapted for the crews for these tow boats and barges. I will not try to tell you how to make up a tow but I can show you how to protect your crews in the event of a fire.

Why not give us a call or an e-mail today to set up this seminar for your Fire Department located along an inland waterway or for for your boat crews.


1 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Navigation Data Center, National Waterway Network

2 -Side of vessel from waterline to main deck.


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Previous Newsletters:

Newsletter # 1 "Marine Firefighting Training, Who needs it!"

Newsletter # 2 "Shipboard Basics"

Newsletter # 3 "Straight Stream Vs Fog Stream"

Newsletter #4 "Immigrants in Shipping Containers"

Newsletter #5 "Hazards of Refrigeration in the Shipping Industry"

Newsletter #6 "Stability at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #7 "2 in 2 out at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #8 "What Happened To the Air"

Newsletter #9 "What Else Can Fireboats Do - WTC Response"

Newsletter #10 "Port Security - Are We Missing the Boat"

Newsletter # 11 "Let the Coast Guard Handle It"

Newsletter # 12 "Marina Fires ... We've Gotcha Covered!"

Newsletter # 13 "Shipboard Security -- The shocking Truth"

Newsletter # 14 "Just Because It Hasn't Happened Yet!"

Newsletter # 15 "What's In Those Shipping Containers"

Newsletter # 16 "Some Problems at a Marina Fire"

Newsletter # 17 "Maneuvering Your Fireboat Near Large Ships"

Newsletter # 18 "Something New at Ship Fires - Auto Exposure

Newsletter # 19 Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)