The Marine Firefighting Institute

Newsletter # 2
Please do not reprint in any form without the permission of the author.


Shipboard Basics


By Tom Guldner
The Marine Firefighting Institute

In my last article I stated that it wasn't necessary to become an "old salt" in order to know your direction aboard ship or to learn some basic shipboard nomenclature. At many structural fires the direction around a fire building is given as exposures. Exposure "A" being the location of the command post (usually the front of the building), "B" is the area to the left, and all sides are thus lettered in a clockwise direction around the fire structure or emergency site.


As for direction aboard ship, imagine that you are standing on the deck of a ship and facing the front or "pointy" end. The very front of the ship is called the bow and everything in that direction is always forward. The extreme rear of the ship is the stern and everything in that direction is aft or astern. While still facing forward, the side of the ship to your right is starboard and anything in that direction is considered "to starboard". To your left is port and everything in that direction is "to port". Everything down is below and everything up is above. The floor is the deck, the ceiling is the overhead, and a wall is a bulkhead. When stretching a hoseline and you say to the ship's crew, "Give me a hand with the line", don't be surprised if you are handed a rope. Aboard ship, a line is a rope. If you want to talk about a hose line you must say "HOSE line." Even if you don't speak these terms, you should understand them in order to grasp crucial information from the crew.

When a ship is built, the first concern is that it stays on top of the water. To do this it must be built to be buoyant and able to maintain that buoyancy. Rigid frames form the shape and provide contact points for the outer wielded plates or hull. To prevent water that might enter from a breach in this hull from filling up the entire ship, the hull is divided up into vertical watertight compartments called Main Vertical Zones. (MVZ). The MVZs are bounded by watertight bulkheads that generally extend from the keel or lowest part of the ship to the underside of the main deck. (Note: Some may not. Consult ships plans.) To allow passage throughout the ship watertight doors (Fig. 1) are placed in these watertight bulkheads. When these doors are closed, the watertight bulkheads will not only contain water but also fire and smoke.

Fig. 1

Caution! Some watertight doors are hydraulically activated and can automatically close with much force. Personnel can be severely injured and hose lines severed or crushed thereby stopping water flow. Each door may be capable of being placed in the manual mode. Consult a knowledgeable crew member because some controls may be overridden from the bridge.

The ships fire plans, (Fig. 2) which should be found in tubes on each side of the main deck where you normally board the ship, should list all frames, watertight bulkheads, and watertight doors. Each of these should have a distinctive number painted on it (Fig. 1). If you are lost, find the number of the watertight door and transmit that to the command post. They should be able to find that numbered feature on the ships plan and send aid to you or direct you to the nearest escape route. (If the fire plan doesn't list the numbers then there should be copies of the ships general plan on the bridge. Also, be aware that some older ships may not have these numbers).

Fig. 2

There will also be important markings on the outside of the hull also. Draft Marks (Fig. 3)will indicate the number of feet or meters of the ship that is under water. If you record the readings at the bow and stern and on both sides when you first arrive, you can then compare them to later readings. This will let you know if the vessel is listing, (tilting to one side or the other). A log of these half hour readings should be maintained at the command post.

Fig. 3

Other markings on the outer hulls of commercial vessels will indicate the locations of holds, tanks, and other areas within the ship. Most tanks and holds are numbered starting with number one at the Bow. (Remember, this only applies to MOST ships. There will be exceptions.) The numbering system can be easily determined from the ship's fire plan. The marks will generally have an upright line bordered forward and aft by identifying numbers or letters. For example, if you saw the mark in Fig. 4...

Fig. 4

3 [] 2


…on the side of the ship you would know that it is the bulkhead separating hold or tank 3 and 2. You would also know that the bow of the ship is most likely to your right and that you are looking at the starboard side. This is because if most ships start numbering from the bow then the lower number should indicate the direction to the bow. This is important in communicating a location to someone aboard. If, for instance, you noticed a scorched spot on the side of the ship it would help in locating the fire if you could tell someone the exact location of the scorch spots. Another example of a hull mark would be…


ER [] 7

This would indicate the bulkhead separating the Engine Room (ER) in the stern from tank or hold 7.
Another distinctive hull mark might look like this…


ER []C C [] 7

The two upright marks indicate watertight bulkheads separated by a space of only three to six feet. This marks the location of a cofferdam which is an air space separating a hazardous area from the remainder of the ship. On tankers there is usually a cofferdam between the engine room in the stern, and the last storage tank. In an emergency, the cofferdam can also be filled with water as an effective barrier to heat and fire.

In no way is this article a complete list of shipboard terms and features. It will hopefully be a start in your marine knowledge. Whenever possible, take a close look at any commercial ship you find. (Be advised, the ships Master is just that. The MASTER of that vessel. We must remember this, even at a fire. You will need this man's help and cooperation. Don't think that you are going to barge onto his ship and take over. Under International law he is in ultimate command of his vessel. His title of Master had once read "Master Under God". Many of them take this quite literally.) If the ships Master gives his permission to come aboard then look for the features I have just mentioned. (You didn't learn to pull ceilings in the firehouse kitchen! You will not learn these things without "hands on" experience.) Remember that his crew will be very busy, but if possible ask a knowledgeable member of the crew to explain any features you do not know. The first and second Mates should be knowledgeable about the operation of everything outside of the engine room. Consult the Chief Engineer or his assistants for anything in the engine room. Many times seeing these marks and features for yourself will help you understand their meaning as well as their usefulness to the Land Based Firefighter who may be called into this new marine environment to fight a ship fire. You should also point these features out to other members of your department. It could save a life. Maybe yours!

Stay Safe.

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Previous Newsletters:

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