Marine Firefighting Inc.


Newsletter # 31
Please do not reprint in any form without the permission of the author.

Firefighters on Tow Boats and Barges

By Tom Guldner (FDNY ret) - President, Marine Firefighting Inc.

I have been training both Land-Based Firefighters and Mariners about all aspects of marine firefighting for over 18-years. Before that I was the Officer-in-Charge of a Fire Rescue Boat for the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY), where I also acted as the training officer for the FDNY Marine Division. Since retirement from the FDNY in 2001 I have been operating a training company called "Marine Firefighting Inc. (MFI). My training programs have brought me all over the world to conduct training on all aspects of marine firefighting and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for mariners and First Responders .

Most Firefighters do not normally operate on the water and those that do, do not often get the chance to actually board commercial vessels. This is not only a shame but it can be disastrous if your Firefighters are expected to board vessels for fire extinguishment but have little or no knowledge of the vessels design and layout.

Coastal communities are familiar with large ships and the many tug boats which are not only escorting these ships but also pulling barges. These "deep-draft" boats are limited to the deeper waters of oceans and large harbors. Much of my training has been devoted to firefighting on these larger vessels.

But there are other vessels to be dealt with in locations other than coastal regions. One of the vessels most often encountered on rivers and Inland waterways are known as "Tow Boats" which handle barges all along the hundreds of miles which make up the inland waterway system in the USA. These shallower waters require vessels and barges to be much more limited in their draft1 . When a Tow Boat is pushing one or more barges the entire group of vessels is simply called a "Tow". See previous article about these vessels in Newsletter # 20, found in the archive below.

Firefighters along these waterways are generally from rural communities with limited resources. As the rivers flow past major ports, the Fire Departments located in these larger cities may be better equipped to handle fires on the river. However, when fires occur on vessels in the more remote stretches of these waterways the local response can be little or sometimes, none at all.

My "Tow Boat and Barge Fire" training program is designed for any Firefighter who might be expected to operate on these river "Tows". Even rural Fire Departments with no fire boat or dedicated marine response vessel can effectively operate on a barge or towboat fire.

In my training, I discuss access to these vessels. Sometimes the safest approach is to have the towboat operator head the tow into an accessible location along the river bank and hold his or her position there with forward throttle. (US Army Corps of Engineers photo left) This procedure is not uncommon for the towboat operator. Many times, while awaiting their turn to enter a lock, the tow is held against the bank until its turn comes up to enter the lock. For the firefighter, this position offers a safe way to board the tow and still have access to all their apparatus, hoses, and tools.

A ladder is placed against the barge that has been grounded on the shore and Firefighters are then able to board the barge for extinguishment without the need for a fireboat. There is still the danger of maneuvering along the barges to reach the location of the fire. Each year many barge workers are killed or injured from accidents while working or just walking on barges. Firefighters may not only be walking on the barge but stretching hose lines, conducting rescues, and transporting injured on these tows. Safety while on board barges is a main feature of my training. In the photo on the right Marine Firefighting Inc. is training Louisville, Kentucky Firefighters about some of the dangers when boarding or while operating on barges. The photo on the right shows firefighters stepping off a barge onto a tow boat via the tow boats ramp located at the "Push Knee" or "Tow Knee"2 .

Not sure what a "Tow Knee" is? Then that is the reason I go over basic Tow Boat and Barge terminology at the start of the classroom segment of this training program. We Firefighters have our own terminology but if we are expecting to operate in this marine environment it is vital that we know the "Marine terminology". In the Fire Service, a "line" is most often considered to mean a "hose line". However, in an emergency, if a crew member requests a line and he gets a hose line he or she might not be too happy. A line on a tow boat is a rope.

There are many other terms and pieces of equipment that have specific names. If you are serious about learning to fight tow boat and barge fires you should become familiar with the names and terms used by the crews. At the very least you should know the terminology which designates direction aboard any vessel.

There are several other areas where fires on these vessels and barges differ greatly with what land-based firefighters are used to dealing with. Stability3 is one major difference. At a structural fire, your firefighting water will not cause the building to sink. With any fire on a vessel you must be aware of just how the weight of your firefighting water will affect that vessel. Too much water may cause the vessel to sink or, worse, capsize with your personnel on board.

So, knowledge of some basic stability principals go hand in hand in my training with de-watering operations. If you are going to be putting tons of water on a vessel you must also be doing something to remove that weight before it causes stability issues. Where will you get the pumps to enable you to remove that water? Most Tow Boats have their own de-watering pumps. (Photo left)

Barges are notorious for leaking so the barge workers check the "bilges4" of each barge in the tow on each watch. If water is found they bring out pumps and de-water the barge. Need more pumps? Each tow boat will have at least one and if you are near a barge "Fleeting area5" they may have many pumps available.

The spaces where that water is accumulating brings us to an area of great concern regarding safety while aboard a vessel. All vessels, tow boats and barges included, have areas where water can accumulate. In addition to the bilge we just mentioned there are also barge ballast tanks6 . Rusting and rotting of any organic material inside these locations can reduce the oxygen content of that area. Firefighters are trained about "Confined Spaces" These spaces, and others aboard vessels, are also confined spaces. At most fires and emergencies there is no reason for any Firefighter to enter these areas unless it is for a rescue. And then, only Confined Space" trained personnel are the ones who should enter.

Entrance to these spaces on a barge are generally found along the sides through small openings covered by hatches or manholes that, many times are in poor condition (photo right). These hatches and manholes can create tripping hazards and in some deteriorated conditions the manhole covers may spin when stepped on!

In the classroom, and again during familiarization visits to tow boats and barges, the Firefighters are continuously cautioned about the myriad dangers and tripping hazards on the deck of these barges. In addition to the structural features sticking out of the decks there is usually an array of tools, wires and cables lying on theses decks.

OK, back to those openings in the deck. Once a hatch or manhole is opened on the deck of a barge, a ladder (photo left), which may also be rusted and unstable, would then lead down into the ballast tank. Remember, there may be reduced levels of oxygen down there. There is generally no need for firefighters to enter. Many deaths and injuries to barge workers have occurred in these below deck areas.

You may see barge workers entering these areas on many occasions to inspect and/or de-water that area. Do not follow them down there. In many cases these workers have no confined space training and the area being entered has not been certified as safe. Also remember, if there is ever any doubt as to if an area is a confined space then that area IS A CONFINED SPACE.

As you can see there is much to learn about emergency operations on tow boats and barges. In this article we only covered some of the dangers associated with just one method of acces to a barge (there are many more) and with walking on barges. There is much more to learn......

No one article can cover all the areas taught in my training programs. Any Fire Department located along any of our commercial waterways needs to provide comprehensive vessel and barge fire training if you expect you Firefighters to safely operate on these river tows.

To see a description of my "Tow Boat and Barge Fire" training program click on the FIREFIGHTING button at the bottom of this page and then select Tow Boats and Barge Fires.

Until next time. Stay safe out there


1.The depth of water a ship draws, especially when loaded

2. Heavy steel fixtures on the bow of towboats to enable them to push against the stern of barges.

3. Vessel stability is an area of naval architecture and ship design that deals with how a ship behaves at sea, both in still water and in waves, whether intact or damaged. Stability calculations focus on the center of gravity, center of buoyancy, and metacenter of vessels and on how these interact.

4. The bilge is the lowest compartment on a ship or barge, below the waterline, where the two sides meet at the keel.

5. Barge fleeting facility means a commercial area, the purpose of which is for the making up, breaking down, or staging of barge tows.

6. Ballast Tanks or Saddle Tanks - Watertight compartments on each side which adds buoyancy to a barge. Note: On ships, these tanks can be flooded to provide better stability when weight of cargo has been removed.


Why not let Marine Firefighting Inc. set up your own Marine Firefighting Training for firefighting on ships or boats of all sizes or our Liquefied Natural Gas for First Responders training. 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 their Small Working Vessel Operations and Safety panel.

Tom is also a Principal Member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Merchant Vessels and is certified by the NFPA as completing training in "Responding to Gaseous Fueled Vehicle Incidents" (LNG)

His articles on Marine Firefighting have been published both nationally and internationally and he is a Contributing Editor to International Firefighter Magazine

Tom is certified by BNSF Railroad in "LNG Awareness and Emergency Response" and in "Railroad Emergency Response HazMat Awareness"

You can contact Tom at

Please leave you comments about this article (Good or Bad) in my Guest Book. Or give me your comments about any future topics you would like to see. If you prefer, you can e-mail me by clicking on the letter to the right.

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Why not have MFI deliver one of our Marine Firefighting training presentations at your next seminar, convention, or training session?

Don't forget that we can also consult with your Fire Department or Marine Company on setting up your own ongoing Marine Firefighting Training program, Port risk analysis or emergency scenario. E-mail us now!

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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?

Newsletter # 25 I'm a Mariner; I Know All About Watertight Doors!

Newsletter # 26 How High's the Water Mama

Newsletter # 27 LNG Where You Least Expect It

Newsletter # 28 Not Another Drill!

Newsletter # 29 LNG for the First Responder

Newsletter # 30 Vessel Fire Plans