The Marine Firefighting Institute

Newsletter # 6
Please do not reprint in any form without the permission of the author.

“Well, the fire went out”….

“Yeah but the ship sank”….

“I know that, but the fire went out!”


At Shipboard Fires

By Tom Guldner


There have been many tragic stories of Fire Departments valiantly fighting a fire aboard a large ship for hours, and even days, only to have the ship capsize or sink at the dock because of the weight of the firefighting water that was applied. The results are embarrassing, frustrating, and expensive.

There are three safe methods to prevent this disaster. The first, and preferable method, would be to remove all of the firefighting water as quickly as it is being applied. The second method would be to use less water, or; no water. The third method would be to move the water to a part of the ship where it will be less destabilizing.

Using less water was covered in my article entitled “Fog Vs Straight Stream at Ship Fires”.  Using NO water will be discussed in future articles on fixed firefighting appliances. That sort of narrows down my choices for this newsletters topic. But before we can discuss how to move this water we must first learn WHY it is important to move it.

Whenever you are presented with a ship or boat fire you have to take some basic laws of physics into account. A vessel stays afloat by offsetting two forces of nature. Gravity is attempting to push the ship down into the water (sinking), while the buoyancy of the water will be pushing up from the bottom. If either force wins, you're in trouble.

If you are not a Chief Officer, and never hope to be one, then all you need to know about ship stability is that any weight added to a ship, beyond that which it is designed for, may cause the ship to sink. The higher up in the ship that this weight is added, the worse the problem. OK, anyone who might ever be in command of a ship fire, (or any really smart Company Officers or Firefighters, or mariners), must have an understanding of the principles of stability. So only they can read on.

I’m in NO WAY a physicist so I probably WILL be able to explain just what stability is.

Here goes…

The Center of Buoyancy is the point at which all vertical upward forces (buoyant forces) are said to act. It is the center of the volume of the immersed portion of the vessel.

For mathematical equations this point is simply identified as “B” (A lot of deep thinking went into THAT choice!).

The opposite force is Gravity. (I wonder what letter the math wizards will use for the center of that!).

The Center of Gravity is the center of the total weight of the loaded vessel and yes; the letter “G” identifies it. Shipbuilders know where this point should be even at the design stage of a ships construction.

It is the point where the entire weight of the ship, and its contents, is concentrated. (That underlined stuff is going to be important later!)

If additional, excess, weight is added to the ship then this point “G” will be located higher and the ship will become less stable.(More about that later. I'm getting ahead of myself.)


When both of these forces press equally against each other from directly opposite directions then the ship is said to be “At Rest” or upright.

This is rarely the case however.

External forces such as wind and waves will usually change this.




If the ship was built and loaded correctly, these outside forces may cause the vessel to temporally tilt from side to side (Heel)[1], however the vessel should return to the upright by itself. Lets say that the Exterior Force of a wave caused this ship to “Heal” over to the side.

If the weight of the ship and its contents has not changed, or shifted (there's that underline again!), then the center of gravity (G) will remain in place.

But look at the “B”. It moved in the direction of the lower side. THAT point is now the center of Buoyancy and the upward forces of Buoyancy will seem to push harder on this lower side. The result will be a return to the upright.

Remember, this is on a ship whose weight has not been changed or shifted.

That’s not too bad so far. That’s just two letters to remember. But you know that THEY can’t leave that alone. You know THE’RE going to throw in another letter to confuse us.


The letter “M” will stand for the Metacenter. (Don't look at that letter "Z" in the diagram. We're going to handle this without the use of that! If you really need to know, E-mail me.)

Don’t give up! I don’t like this either but it will all come together soon (I hope). The Metacenter is a point near the centerline of the ship. It is a point that will normally be stationary and directly over the point of buoyancy regardless of which side “B” moves.

If you consider “B” as the ball at the bottom of a pendulum then “M” is the connecting point from which that pendulum swings.

The Metacentric Height then is the distance between the center of gravity “G” and the metacenter “M” and is simply called “GM”. The GM is crucial to stability.

The further apart that “G” and “M” become, the more stable the ship and the quicker it will right itself. This long "GM" also causes an uncomfortable whipping motion that anyone ever assigned to a US destroyer in the North Atlantic can attest to. (Destroyers have a notoriously long "GM" and therefore, a terrible ride.)

Hey; wake up! I’m getting to the end..

To provide a more comfortable ride, most passenger ships are built with a shorter Metacentric Height. This will allow the vessel to slowly recover and not throw the passengers against a bulkhead.

I mentioned before that as long as the weight of a vessel, and the location of that weight, remains constant, then the center of gravity would not move.

This is where OUR problem comes in as Firefighters. Weight is always added to a ship in the form of cargo, fuel, provisions, and passengers. These items have all been previously calculated in the ships stability plan and should therefor not cause a problem. However, as the unexpected, excess weight of firefighting water is added, the ships center of gravity will rise and the vessel will become less stable. If the center of gravity rises above the metacenter the ship will capsize. Also, as the ship develops a list[2], its center of gravity may move in the same direction as the point of buoyancy if there is also a corresponding shift in weight as in the diagram. (Here's where we get to the importance of the shifting that was underlined before.) This new location of the downward force of gravity will now fight against the righting tendency of the new point of buoyancy that had shifted previously. The result is that the ship will no longer return to the upright. This shifting of water can also have some drastic consequences as you will soon see.


If an area flooded with the firefighting water is only partially filled, and there is no restriction to the side-to-side movement of the water, the result can be devastating (See Fig. to left).[3] A defective bow door of this European ferry allowed water onto the undivided car deck. As the ship listed, the water was unrestricted, and rushed to the low side causing the vessel to capsize with a large loss of life.

This free movement or sudden shifting of water is called “Free Surface Effect” and is a major problem in ship stability during fire operations.

If the area is completely flooded or if there are restricting boundaries to act as baffles then the water is no longer subject to Free Surface Effect.


The location of this weight is important also.

Here I FINALLY get to the original topic of this article, "moving the water to a location where it will be less destabilizing."  Firefighting water that accumulates on the upper levels of a vessel, will be more likely to decrease stability than water accumulating in lower areas due to the raising of the center of gravity which leads to listing and eventual capsizing.

If all of the water went directly to the lowest part of the ship it could actually help to make a ship more stable.[4] (Up to a limited amount of course.) Ideally you want to remove this water from the ship. But this can’t always be done. Some reasons that might prevent you from removing the water overboard are: lack of pumps, lack of power, pollutants mixed with water.

In these cases your next best solution is to transfer this water as low in the ship as possible. If you have pumps but are unable to pump overboard due to the height, then you can pump this water into the ship bilge where it can then either be pumped overboard by the ships own bilge pumps or it can remain at this safer, lower area. (You will still have to be monitoring the ships draft!)

One trick that has been used successfully at many ship fires, and doesn't’t require the use of pumps, is to remove or break apart toilets in any flooded upper lever accommodation spaces. This will allow the water to drain through the soil pipe then down into the ships sanitary tanks, which are located in the lower levels of the ship. If the Coast Guard permits, these tanks can then be pumped overboard but it’s not likely that the Coast Guard will approve. However, at least the water will now be at the lowest level. Caution: If the sanitary tanks overflow this may create a health haxard.

Anytime you are going to be putting firefighting water on a ship you must simultaneously begin removing or relocating that water. When starting any de-watering operation you must realize that the priority has to be given to any upper flooded arrears especially those that are subject to Free Surface Effect. One of my first calls at a ship fire would be to the Coast Guard to request them to send someone to monitor stability. They know what they are doing and can relieve you of this task. But until they arrive it will be up to you. (NOW THAT'S A GREAT REASON TO CALL THEM EARLY!)

I hope that this article was written clearly enough so that you now understand the topic. If not please E-mail me with any questions you still may have regarding stability. If it was clear enough, please E-mail me with compliments! (I like those better!)

Stay Safe.


[1] Heel – The temporary tilting of a vessel from side to side. If this tilt becomes permanent it is then called a List

[2] List – A permanent tilting of a vessel to one side or the other.

[3] Several recent ferry disaster investigations in Europe, such as the auto-ferry M/V Estonia, have listed the Free Surface Effect of water on the open vehicle deck as a cause for the sudden capsizing of the vessels.

[4] (Under normal circumstances after a ship is unloaded, the Ballast Tanks in the ships’ lowest levels are filled with sea water to increase the ships’ stability. The ship is then said to be In Ballast.)

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.

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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"