NTSB recommends firefighting training requirement for crews of small passenger vessels

Recent fires aboard small passenger vessels have prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend that the U.S. Coast Guard require crews of these vessels to have firefighting training and that the fire detection systems on these vessels be constructed with approved components.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited the case of the 2004 fire in the engine room of the 75-foot Express Shuttle II while it was entering the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River near Port Richey, Fla. Only the master and two deck hands were aboard. None activated the fixed carbon dioxide (CO2) fire suppression system but instead tried to fight the fire with portable extinguishers. The fire grew out of control, the crew abandoned ship and the $800,000 vessel was destroyed. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire was an improperly installed fuel injection line, as well as the vessel owner’s failure to have a preventative maintenance program. Express Shuttle II’s faulty fire detection system and the crew’s inability to properly fight the fire were other factors identified by the NTSB as contributing to the extent of the damage.

According to the NTSB, the deck hands aboard Express Shuttle II delayed notifying the captain about the fire, who then did not respond immediately to the warning. The crew opened hatches to the engine room at least three times, fueling the fire with oxygen. The deck hands had not undergone any emergency training, including fire drills.

The NTSB also noted a similar instance that occurred in November 2000 aboard Port Imperial Manhattan, a commuter ferry operated by NY Waterway. While the NTSB determined the fire was caused by a loose connection in an electrical junction box, it also noted that the crew did not respond properly to the fire because of inadequate training.

“In light of the evidence from the Express Shuttle II and previous vessel fires that it has investigated, the Safety Board believes that the Coast Guard should establish firefighting training requirements for crewmembers on board all small passenger vessels,” the NTSB wrote in a letter in early May addressed to Adm. Thomas H. Collins, then commandant of the Coast Guard.

NTSB investigators also discovered that Express Shuttle II’s fire detection system did not sound an alarm at any point during the fire, probably because the alarm panel had not been approved for use in fire detection systems, nor were the circuits wired in compliance with Coast Guard regulations. The NTSB suggested that had the alarm sounded properly, the crew of Express Shuttle II might not have opened and closed the hatches so many times to determine the cause and status of the fire, and instead the master could have activated the fixed CO2 system.

“The Safety Board is concerned that other small passenger vessels might be equipped with noncompliant fire detection systems similar to the one installed on the Express Shuttle II, which would put other passengers and crewmembers at risk from undetected shipboard fires,” the NTSB wrote. “The Board therefore believes that the Coast Guard should require that Officers in Charge, Marine Inspection, before issuing a certificate of inspection to a small passenger vessel that is required to have a fire detection system, verify that all system components are approved for use in fire detection systems and that the circuits of the system are electrically supervised.”

Mike Donovan, business development manager of Kidde Fire Systems in Ashland, Mass., said engineered fire suppression systems have in the past been designed for large vessels, leaving those under 100 feet with fewer options for customized fire suppression systems.

Kidde Fire Systems is in the process of developing some marine detection systems that will meet Coast Guard and NTSB approval. Donovan said the NTSB’s recommendations are reasonable.

“As someone in the fire detection business,” he said, “everything they propose makes sense.”    •

By Professional Mariner Staff