Written by Jen Finn
Shoring up your safety equipment
From UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch reports
Preparing for safety at sea must include those days and nights when you are tied to the dock and sleeping aboard.
The alarm systems in place for life at sea are often wired to alert someone on watch in the wheelhouse. However, if the crew is living aboard at the dock, there is not likely to be anyone watching to notice the alarm.
In late July 2008, a 61-foot steel Scottish prawn trawler left Fraserburgh, Scotland, with the prospective new owner on board as crew to acquaint himself with the vessel. About a week later, the trawler returned to Fraserburgh and berthed in preparation for modifications and repairs to suit the new owner's needs.
With the exception of the second engineer, the original crew left the vessel. The new engineer joined the crew to become familiar with the systems before the second engineer was scheduled to leave the vessel that week. The two men were living aboard and were expected to do maintenance work during the handover period. The prospective owner then left for an overseas trip.
Two electricians surveyed the electrical work, which included repairing the electric fan heater in the galley and the ventilation fan motor in the cabin space, and fitting a 24-volt socket in the wheelhouse. The crew reported that two other electric fan heaters were defective, one in the wheelhouse and one in the cabin space.
The electricians found a defective on/off switch in the wheelhouse heater and faulty thermostat controls in the galley and cabin heaters. All heaters were repaired, and returned to the vessel, where they were refitted, tested, and confirmed to be operating correctly.
That evening, the new engineer was seen at a local bar with a friend and the two were spotted returning to the boat just after midnight.
At about 1:20 a.m., a port security guard noticed a plume of gray smoke rising from the aft end of the trawler's wheelhouse. Knowing that people had boarded to the vessel earlier, the guard made his way to the watertight door at the aft end of the main deck. He opened the door, was immediately engulfed in thick black smoke, then closed the door and secured it. He then climbed up a ladder and opened the wheelhouse door. He was again engulfed by black smoke, so he shut the door and used his radio to raise an alarm.
Shortly thereafter, an ambulance arrived. The crew reported 6-foot flames coming from a galley vent and black smoke billowing out of the main deck watertight door and the wheelhouse.
A firefighting team cooled the area around the watertight door, then entered. Inside, they saw that the galley, which was red hot, appeared to be the source of the fire. The fire was extinguished about 40 minutes later. Emergency responders began to search the vessel and discovered three bodies.
In the galley, the bodies of the new engineer and his friend (who was a crew member on another fishing boat) were badly burned. The second engineer was found on the deck of the wheelhouse next to the access hatch.
The fire left a V-shaped burn pattern directly above the seating area where the electric fan heater was installed, indicating the fire originated in this area.
The galley had a fire door, which was fitted with a self-closing mechanism that had been disconnected. The door was held open by a permanent hook and eye, which allowed the fire to spread into the adjacent main passageway.
The hatch to the wheelhouse from the main passageway was open. The wheelhouse suffered moderate smoke damage, but there was no evidence of fire damage.
It is believed that the second engineer attempted to escape but was overwhelmed by smoke before he could reach a hatch.
There was no evidence that the fire was the result of a fault in the galley heater. However, the heater's main power switch and both elements were turned on.
Heat and smoke sensors were fitted to the deck head almost directly above the source of the fire. The sensors were connected to a wheelhouse alarm panel, which had been electrically isolated by turning the individual breakers off.
With the detection system isolated, no one aboard could have been alerted of the fire. However, the alarm was designed to alert someone on watch at sea. Thus, it was located in the wheelhouse. Even if it had sounded, it was remote from the crew's living quarters and was unlikely to have been heard.
If crews are to live aboard fishing vessels in port, it is essential that smoke and fire alarms be installed to provide the living quarters with early warning of an emergency. Crews also should be aware of and run drills on the quickest escape routes in case of fire or flooding at dock or at sea.
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