This is the second of a two part series on shipboard fire fighting. Part one (see Summer 2014) covers the basic shipboard environment and intends to identify the potential need for training. Part two is an overview of shipboard fire fighting operations.

Size-Up and Establishing a Unified Command

When initially responding to a shipboard fire, conduct a scene size-up and begin to establish a unified command. These actions go hand in hand as much of the required is obtained from those in the unified command, which generally begin with the ship’s Master and crew. They provide you with much needed information and expertise as well as determine if anyone is allowed to operate on their vessel.

 An important part of the initial size-up is to obtain copies of the ship’s documents, most notably the fire control plan which is basically a floor plan of the ship. The plans are in the official language of the flag State with a translation into either English or French. In addition to plans permanently exhibited for the guidance of the ship’s officers, a duplicate set or booklet of fire control plans are in a conspicuously marked container outside the deck house normally adjacent to the gangway. These plans show the location of items such as fire control stations, fire resistant bulkheads, various detection systems i.e. smoke and heat, fire suppression systems, access and egress routes, ventilation systems, and the international shore connection (ISC). A general cargo stowage plan is normally available as well as a special list describing any dangerous goods on board and their locations.

Besides your normal scene size up, some specific elements that you may want to consider are hazardous materials. Many of these should be listed on the dangerous cargo manifest but may also be included amongst the ships supplies and various byproducts associated with cargo storage, ships operations and the cargos exposure to fire and water. In particular, exposures should be a special consideration as much of that exposed area is likely to be your facility. Also pay attention to tides and water flow which can affect hose lines that are stretched, access, ladders that are positioned and mooring lines. A receding tide can cause a loss of the ability to draft water with potentially catastrophic results.

 In relation to the fire some items that you want to ascertain are: the location and what cargo is involved, if it has been confined or not, if the ships fire suppression system has been utilized or not, and are ships personnel fighting the fire and are they accounted for. All of this information should be readily obtainable from ships personnel.


Communication problems can come in many forms. They can involve human elements such as language barriers with a foreign crew, or terminology barriers between land and ship based personnel i.e. while ships personnel would use the term line to refer to a rope in FDNY parlance a line refers to a hose. Communication problems can also be equipment issues such as an incompatibility of communications equipment, or the inability of some radios to maintain contact when operating below deck. Most of these problems can be remedied through training i.e., learning appropriate terminology; obtaining appropriate equipment, i.e., purchasing radios that operate below deck or borrowing crew’s radios; and developing appropriate SOP’s i.e., using runners to communicate with below deck.


When I refer to access I am referring to both shipboard access and to access below deck. One of the initial items to address is the appropriate PPE for boarding a ship. Many teams that are involved in shipboard operations opt to carry or hoist their PPE aboard ship while boarding wearing a PFD. Access can be via a gangway which can only be used for one way on or off at a time; or possibly even a Jacobs Ladder.1 This access can be supplemented by shore based ladders, or cranes for equipment access. Access below deck can be challenging for numerous reasons. Passageways can be narrow and staircases/ladders can be steep. This is in addition to the problem of remaining oriented in an environment of possible limited visibility and great complexity. Some potential aids towards maintaining orientation are: using crewmembers as guides or hose lines and search lines.

Water Supply, Dewatering and Vessel Stability

I put these topics together because I believe that as soon as you start putting water on the fire you should begin to consider dewatering operations. Water weighs approximately 8.3 pounds per gallon. This means that when utilizing a 2½-inch line at 250 gpm for firefighting operations, you are adding a ton of water per minute to the vessel. This can obviously affect vessel stability. If the vessels fire water systems is in operation one of the first considerations should be its augmentation. This can often be accomplished through the international shore connection (ISC). The ISC is a universal fitting tied into the vessels fire main system. Land units possessing the corresponding ISC will be able to connect into any large commercial ship regardless of the nation of origin.

Other operations to maintain vessel stability and minimize list2 should only be conducted after consulting with those with expertise in this field such as the ships master, salvage masters, marine consultants, etc. Some tactics to correct a vessel’s list include: removing weight topside, transferal of weight, and counter flooding. The degree of list can be monitored by reading the vessel’s inclinometer. Controlling this is important as listing can very rapidly turn to capsizing as water shifts. Be proactive.

Air Supply

Air supply can be a major consideration at many of these operations. Operations below deck can be both long term and manpower intensive; utilizing large quantities of cylinders. In addition to planning the logistics of obtaining and or refilling an adequate amount of cylinders they should be pre-deployed to a location on the deck near the access to the fire area.

As well as assuring an adequate air supply is present on deck, the time on air and the amount of air remaining in the cylinders of those operating must be monitored. You must ensure that an adequate amount of air is remaining to both exit the contaminated environment and to deal with unforeseen circumstances.


The lack of an adequate means of ventilation is one of the main problems associated with fighting a shipboard fire. If the fire is below deck the answer is probably not ventilation and generally you will take the opposite approach and seal off the area. Sealing the area helps to contain the fire, as well as depriving the fire of the oxygen leg of the fire triangle, and allowing the ships fire suppression systems to work. There may however be situations where it may be desirable to vent, such as if you are unable to seal off the area or if you need to enter the area for rescue purposes. Venting if required will be difficult at best. One option is to use natural venting in which you provide a path for the heat and smoke to escape by opening vents and hatches, taking care to also seal areas that you are not willing to contaminate. In some cases this path can be provided by cutting holes. Another option is to use the vessels ventilation systems to direct the flow of heat and smoke. This can also be accomplished by bringing in portable equipment such as fans.

Basic Firefighting Operations

Two typical situations that you could find upon arrival are that: the fire area has been sealed off and the vessels CO2 flooding system (or other fire suppression system) has been previously activated; or the fire area does not have a fire suppression system and will have to be attacked by stretching hose lines.

 If the best course of action is deemed to be the use of the ships fire suppression system the area will generally have to be sealed off by closing off all vents and hatches, although some fire suppression systems such as foam do not require this. If the area has been sealed and the fire suppression system activated the area should generally remain sealed until temperatures are stabilized and reduced. This will often take several days.

If the best course of action is deemed to be the application of water to the fire independent of the ships fire suppression systems than hoses will have to be stretched. The first decision to be made when planning for this is whether to use the fire hose and nozzles located at the ships fire stations or hose stretched from land. In this scenario the FDNY generally believes in using our own hose lines and nozzles, supplied with water from an independent source because we have faith in and familiarity with our equipment. On the other hand the advantage of using the ships equipment is a saving of time and manpower. If utilizing land lines an alternative to stretching them up the gangway is to use rope to haul the hose up the side of the vessel.

Since the hull and decks of a vessel are usually constructed of steel plates, heat from the fire can be conducted to combustible materials in the adjoining areas above, below and on all four sides of the fire. To prevent fire spread it may be necessary to set up boundaries and isolate the fire on all six sides. This is accomplished by removing combustibles and stretching hose lines to cool these bulkheads and decks.

As in cellar fires there are other alternatives useful in getting water on the fire such as using vent shafts to discharge water into holds and lowering cellar nozzles.


 While the training, manpower and equipment requirements to operate multiple hose lines and conduct rescues several levels below deck can be daunting; the training requirements to conduct basic operations are relatively minimal. Some advantages that industrial teams have in training for shipboard fires is that they would generally be dealing with specific types of vessels and would probably already be familiar with any types of hazardous cargoes onboard. Some very basic training that could prove advantageous begins with vessel familiarization. This could include items such as: nomenclature, finding and reading the fire control plan, ship access, and supplying the vessels fire water system through the ISC. To determine the next step in your training consider setting up a pre-fire plan and training accordingly. This could include such items as exposure protection or training in specific operations as deemed appropriate such as applying hi-expansion foam or supplementing the vessels fire control system i.e., resupplying the CO2 system. In addition to fighting shipboard fires, this basic training can assist you in responding to other shipboard emergencies such as medical issues, hazardous materials spills, or confined space rescues.

 James Kiesling is a Captain with the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds a bachelor of arts in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an associates degree in occupational studies in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.


Fire Department City of New York, Marine Manual ational Fire Protection Administration. NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Fighters Who Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, 1990 Edition. Quincy: NFPA, 1990