Marine Firefighting Inc.


Newsletter # 25
Please do not reprint in any form without the permission of the author.


I'm a Mariner; I Know All About Watertight Doors!

No matter what profession you discuss, anyone who has been around long enough has heard statements to that effect. Whatever it is that you work with constantly, every day, you begin to feel comfortable with and often complacent. That can prove deadly!

You have worked aboard a ship or work boat all your life. No one knows more than you about using watertight doors. This complacency has led to many vessel losses, damage, injuries, and death.

We will be discussing two types of watertight doors in this article, manual and automatic self-closing watertight doors. Any watertight door is designed to close an opening which was cut into a watertight bulkhead to allow access and egress. First let's look at some of the problems that have occurred with the manual doors.

On many work boats and fishing boats you can see a watertight door on the stern deck leading from the deck into a rear compartment. (Sometimes called a fidley room) and from there down the stairs into the engine room or straight ahead into the galley or living quarters. While under way these doors are supposed to remain closed and "dogged" In fact there is a regulation about that, (a regulation? unusual!). CFR 46 174.210(e) states that Masters must insure that watertight doors are always closed except when being used for access.

Accident investigators have sent cameras down to photograph vessels which have sunk in order to determine the cause of the sinking. Many times these cameras are able to take photos of that same watertight door tied open. (See Transport Canada photo right). Something had caused water to enter the rear deck area and it then entered the open watertight door causing downflooding and sinking the vessel before anyone could react.

Why are these doors left open and, at times, even tied open? Anyone who has ever worked in an engine room or even been in an engine room while underway can attest to the overwhelming heat in this small enclosed space. The doors are left open to provide some relief from that heat. The problem is it also places that vessel at great risk. You will not always be able to get to that door and close it in time during an emergency.

Marine companies should insure adequate ventilation via fans and blowers so that these doors will remain closed. Just putting out a directive to close all watertight doors while underway will not always get it done.

Automatic, self-closing, watertight doors are usually found on larger vessels. They serve the same purpose as the manual doors just discussed. These doors are generally powered by hydraulic pistons which will close the door with great force. The door can be either operated locally or can be operated from the bridge.

Under normal operating conditions these doors will be left in the locally controlled setting. This will allow any crew member to open the door locally, pass through, and then close the door after he/she passes through. Detailed instructions are posted on both sides of the door and all crew members should have been trained on their use and had that training tested during regular drills .

Now, let's go through that procedure again. As the crew member approaches a closed watertight door which is in the local control setting he/she can open that door using a lever that is pulled to the open position. After the door is fully open it should remain in that position. The crewmember passes through the opening and then activates the lever on the other side of the door into the closed position and the door closes.

OK, not too much problem there. This crew member may have to traverse this opening several times during the day. The door opens slowly. Waiting until it opens fully takes time so, mistakenly the crewmember walks through the door as it is still in the process of opening to save time. He or she does this all the time and there has never been a problem. Until today that is. Today, the bridge has activated the switch to the watertight door so that it is in the remote control position.

As or crew member approaches the same door he/she has used many times before there is no indication that the door is not in the local control mode. He/she uses the lever to open the door and immediately lets go of the handle to walk through the door as usual while it is still opening. This time however, as soon as the lever is released, the door immediately starts to close and traps the crewmember with the crushing force of thousands of pounds of pressure.

There may be an alarm sounding whenever the door is moving to alert you the door is in remote mode. Don't count on it. The lack of an indication at the watertight door as to what mode the door is set may be addressed by changes in regulations in the future. Until that time you should ASSUME (we don't usually like to use that word) that the door is in remote mode and will start closing with crushing force as soon as you release the lever.

The procedure of passing through the door while in remote mode is to hold the handle in the open position until the door is fully open. Then, while still holding that handle in the open position, reach through the door to the lever on the other side. Move that lever into the open position and keep it in that position. You can now release the first lever and step through the door. Once you are completely through the opening you can release the lever and the door will close automatically.

Because two hands are needed for this maneuver the crewmember must have both hands free. In other words, you cannot traverse this door in remote mode by yourself while carrying anything.

Sometimes the things we are the most familiar with are the things that can turn around and bite us in the butt. Insure all new members of the crew receive initial training in the operations of these doors. Go over the procedures at each drill and inspect these doors regularly. If used properly, these important ship features can keep our vessel afloat and keep you out of the hospital.

Why not let Marine Firefighting Inc set up your own Marine Firefighting training. For firefighting on ships or boats of all sizes we can design a program to meet your Fire Department or Marine Company's needs.

Tom Guldner is a retired Lieutenant of the New York City Fire Department's Marine Division. Tom held a US Coast Guard License as a Ships Master and is certified as a Fire instructor both within New York State and Nationally in the USA.

He is currently a participating member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) Fishing Vessel Operations and Safety panel and also their Small Working Vessel Operations and Safety panel. Tom is also a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Merchant Vessels. His articles on Marine Firefighting have been published both nationally and internationally. Tom's company Marine Firefighting Inc. is involved in consulting and training mariners and land-based firefighters in all aspects of marine firefighting. E-mail Tom at

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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)

Newsletter # 20 Use Caution at Tow Boat and Barge Fires

Newsletter # 21 Cruise Ships as Floating Hotels?

Newsletter # 22 Is Your Crew Ready for a Fire?

Newsletter # 23 Deep Fryers and Vessel Fires

Newsletter # 24 Fighting Ship Fires for the Army?