FDNY shipboard fire fighting simulator in New York City. -

FDNY shipboard fire fighting simulator in New York City.

This is the first in a two part series on shipboard firefighting.  Part one will cover the basic shipboard environment and help to identify the training needs.  Part two will cover shipboard firefighting operations. 

The amount of commercial traffic on United States waterways is truly impressive. According to the FDNY Marine Division, in the New York City area alone (a relatively small area) one hundred and thirty five million tons of cargo, worth sixty eight billion dollars, was shipped last year. While many industrial facilities are located on the water not all of them have given thought to respond to a ship fire or other shipboard incident. Many of these facilities are required to work with commercial ships in order to both obtain and ship materials.  Maritime emergencies are not uncommon. I have responded to numerous incidents onboard ship including: fires, medical emergencies/traumas, workers in confined spaces, and a ferry crash; as well as operating along with fire boats to respond to incidents on land. Industrial units responding to these types of incidents can find themselves in a similar situation as compared to a municipal fire department responding to an incident in an industrial setting. In both scenarios the structures involved can be large, complicated, and unfamiliar; and the respondents will have to rely upon the expertise of and work in conjunction with, on scene personal. Most ship fires will be handled by the crew and the shipboard systems; consequently if any outside help is requested the situation has probably reached a point where it is beyond the capabilities of the shipboard personal. 

U.S. Navy shipboard fire fighting school in Norfolk, VA. -

U.S. Navy shipboard fire fighting school in Norfolk, VA.

My inspiration for writing this article was provided by my having attended several marine firefighting schools since the last issue of IFW went to press. This included training provided by the FDNY, some of which was in conjunction with the SUNY Maritime College, utilizing their training ship the Empire State VI; and culminated with eight days in Virginia at a marine firefighting school, parts of which were held at the U.S. Navy Firefighting School. For me all of these courses highlighted the same potential difficulties that could be encountered at these operations. Recognizing these common difficulties provides us with the ability to overcome them through some preplanning and training.


The Shipboard Environment

For the purposes of this article I will not discuss the land based side of the operation i.e. marine terminal types, cranes etc. in order to concentrate on the ship itself. 

Ship Construction

The Keel is the main structural member of the ship running from bow to stern. Frames provide the internal structure of the ship attaching perpendicularly to the keel to support the decks and outer shell. These are numbered sequentially and can provide a point of reference during operations. The ship is compartmentalized with decks (floors) and bulkheads (walls) designed to hinder flooding and the spread of fire. These will be numbered or named on the ships fire control plan. Ships can be made up of numerous materials i.e. the outer shell can be steel, aluminum can be used in non-critical areas such as above the main deck, and composite materials can be used for bulkheads in non-critical areas such as sleeping areas. 


The Ships Arrangement

Large commercial ships are quite unique structures. They can be likened to mobile cities with both residential and commercial neighborhoods.  The residential section has its own hotel and restaurant. The commercial district has its own warehouses and material-handling facilities.  Both districts are served by power plants and their own fire department.  

The two main components of the ship are the hull and the superstructure. The hull is the main structural body of the vessel encompassing the full length of the vessel from the keel to the main deck. The superstructure is the structure built upon the main deck. 

The bridge - this is the control room for the ship and is located in the superstructure.  From the bridge you can control and monitor such items as: navigation, steering and propulsion, fire detection and suppression systems, ventilation, watertight doors, and communications.  This is where you will also find such paperwork as: charts, tide books, dangerous cargo manifest, and the fire control plan. 

The engine control room – if so equipped this is usually located in the engine room and staffed by the ships engineer. Most of the systems that can be controlled from the bridge can also be controlled from here, enabling this to be a backup to the bridge. 

The fire control room – if so equipped this room contains redundant controls for systems that would be utilized in

Accommodation Spaces – in cargo vessels these are usually located in the superstructure and contain sleeping, dining, bathing and recreation areas. 

Machinery Spaces – the primary machinery space is the engine room.  This area provides, electricity, heating and cooling, as well as propulsion.  Other machinery spaces can perform such functions as pumping, refrigeration and ventilation. 

Other areas and items in the ships arrangement includes: shops, storage spaces, cargo spaces, tanks (for fuel, water, ballast, etc.), and engines.


Shipboard Systems

The following are some of the shipboard systems that are pertinent for firefighting and other emergency operations.


Fire Detection Systems

These can consist of heat and smoke detectors and manual alarms.


Gas Detection Systems

These may be cargo specific or of a more general nature.


Fire Suppression Systems

The Fire Main System - most vessels are equipped with at least one independently driven fire pump accompanied by hydrants, hose & nozzles throughout the ship's spaces.

CO2 Systems - compartments protected by a CO2 system can be sealed off and filled with CO2.

Sprinkler Systems – these operate in the same manner as land based systems.

Foam Systems - these systems are usually found in machinery rooms and similar spaces they can be either low-expansion or high-expansion foam. 

Halon Systems – these are used on some vessels in areas where electrical equipment or gaseous and liquid flammable materials are stored.

Dry Chemical Systems – these are often found in the ships galley. 

Steam Systems - these are used to smother the fire and are more common on older vessels. 

These are just a few examples of shipboard systems.  There are numerous other systems used in both the day to day operations of the ship and in emergencies.  These include systems for:  communication, mooring and anchoring, ventilation, and magnetic systems to remotely control doors.  As in land based firefighting existing fire suppression systems should be utilized and if possible augmented by teams responding to assist in suppression.


Types of Vessels

In this section I will cover some of the types of vessels likely to be encountered in an industrial environment; leaving out vessels such as: recreational vessels, ferries and passenger vessels. 

Dry Bulk Carriers – These usually carry cargo such as grain, coal, iron ore, and scrap steel in large cargo holds.

Break Bulk Carriers – These haul dry cargo in smaller parcels, such as bags, barrels, crates, etc.

Liquid Bulk Carriers (Tankers) - Carry liquid cargo in tanks. Some tankers carry different types of liquid cargo in different tanks.

Roll-on/roll-off (Ro/ro) ships – These vessels transport cars and other rolling vehicles. They can carry containers on deck as well as vehicles. 

Container Vessels - carry break bulk goods in large steel or aluminum containers. There can be as many as 4000 twenty foot containers.

Some other variations/types of vessels include: petroleum tankers, chemical carriers, liquefied flammable gas carriers, sanitation scows, barges, and tugboats.  It is not necessary for an industrial team/fire brigade to familiarize themselves with all of the variations of vessels, only with those that are likely to operate at their facility. 

This is a very basic primer on what to expect at this type of operation.  The next installment will cover the actual operations and the training requirements.  While a complex operation of this type is both manpower and training intensive and can sometimes require the services of specialized personnel; a more common incident could involve the augmentation of the crews operations.  This can be greatly enhanced with a very modest training investment.


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.