Properly installed heaters keep you warm, dry and safe

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

A skipper and two crewmen were groundfishing off of Massachusetts, on a 24-year-old wooden plank-on-frame boat with a fiberglass reinforced plastic outer hull. The skipper and his crew were making day trips to a fishing area five to 10 miles offshore.

The skipper owned and operated the vessel for more than 20 years. One crew member had been working on the vessel for about 10 years. The other crew member was new to fishing and had only been working on the vessel for a few months.

At about 4 p.m. on a mid-winter day in 2005, the vessel was about five miles out and returning to port when it experienced a catastrophic fire. At the time of the fire, winds were north about 10 to 15 knots, seas were 4 to 7 feet, air temperature was about 28 degrees, and the water was about 36 degrees. The two crewmembers were resting in the fo'c'sle space, and the skipper was at the wheelhouse console. He heard a bang and a whooshing sound, and saw a flash of light toward the front of the engine box. He immediately put the engine in neutral and went to the fo'c'sle door.

As he forced the door open, one crew member jumped out with the back of his clothes on fire. The skipper put out the crewman's clothing. He looked for the other crew member but was driven back by intense black smoke and flames rolling out of the space. He determined the fire was out of control and they needed to abandon ship. The skipper and crew member got to their life raft, deployed it and activated their EPIRB.

A fisherman ashore happened to see the smoke and fire, and he got his vessel underway immediately and headed toward the scene. When he arrived, he recovered the skipper and crew member from the life raft, briefly searched for the other crew member, then turned for shore and medical assistance. The local Coast Guard station dispatched small boats to the scene after receiving notification. They finally extinguished the fire after multiple reflashes, but the fishing boat had burned almost to the waterline. A state patrol boat towed the burned vessel toward port, but it sank about a mile from shore. The Coast Guard continued to search for the missing crew member.

The skipper was treated at a local hospital for mild hypothermia. The surviving crew member was treated for burns on his hands and face. The third crew member's remains were recovered several days later on a nearby beach.

Lessons learned

Because of the intense fire onboard the vessel and its subsequent sinking, most of the evidence to determine the source of ignition was destroyed or lost. However, a review of other information about the incident and the vessel, and from the survivors, suggests a gas-fired radiant space heater was the source of ignition. The heater had been installed and used in the fo'c'sle space.

The boat had a fo'c'sle space for eating, resting and storage. The diesel fuel filters, tank control valves, fuel lines, and two small hydraulic fluid tanks were located on the upper portion of the bulkhead in the space. There also was a portable gasoline-powered generator with about a 2-gallon tank stowed forward in the space. The aft bulkhead of the fo'c'sle space was stepped and served as the forward bulkhead of the wheelhouse console and the engine box. The space had an opening into the engine box and bilge space. Starting batteries were located just forward of the engine box in the bilge area that was also under the fo'c'sle space. Aft of the engine box were hold spaces.

Regardless of whether or not the space heater was the ignition source, we will examine several characteristics of heaters and standards for safe operation so you can avoid this type of incident on your vessel. It is not uncommon for crews to use a space heater onboard a vessel during cold weather. However, it is critical to have the right type of equipment for the environment in which it will be used or exposed. Following the National Fire Protection Association and the American Boat and Yacht Council standards for this kind of equipment will help ensure the safe operation of equipment on your boat.

Space heaters installed on a vessel should be intended for use in the marine environment and installed according to industry standards and manufacturers' recommendations and guidelines.

If electrical, they should not be placed in spaces where flammable or combustible liquids or vapors may be present unless they are classified as explosion proof or intrinsically safe. They also must be properly grounded.

Gas-fired heaters should not be placed in any space containing combustible or flammable fuels, fuel containers, fuel lines, or where flammable vapors could reach the heater and cause an explosion. This type of heater must also be properly vented to the outside to prevent the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning or asphyxiation. The fuel source must be placed in a safe location outside and away from the heater, and it must be the type of fuel the device was designed to use.

Commercial fishermen know their trade, are aware of the harsh conditions they may encounter, and are innovative in solving problems. However, this ability to solve a problem through innovation and simplicity can lead to undesirable consequences if one is not careful to follow safety standards and recommended practices. If you install and use equipment on a vessel in a manner other than it was intended, or modify equipment so that it can be used on a vessel, you are playing with fire.

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