Maritime training schools are helping vessel operators and mariners gear up for new regulations pertaining to fire safety and equipment, with many operators opting for clean-agent systems as the move away from halon continues as an onboard fire suppressant.
New standards for fire protection and training have been proposed on two fronts: for towing vessels and towing vessel personnel in a U.S. Coast Guard inspection program and for all personnel on seagoing vessels under the 2010 Manila Amendments of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). Implementation is pending final rules from the Coast Guard.
Personnel from BP Plc and ExxonMobil's SeaRiver division use a fire monitor to contain a cargo tank blaze during exercises at the Texas Engineering Extension Service Center for Marine Training and Safety in College Station, Texas. (Courtesy Texas Engineering Extension Service)
Jon Kjaerulff, president of Fremont Maritime Services in Seattle, said that while the specifics of the final rules are not yet known, the proposals provide a blueprint for upgrades for many clients. The company specializes in basic marine safety and firefighting training, the latter through its India Tango program.
"(The Coast Guard) will likely set new standards for fire protection systems and equipment. Many vessels which do not carry firemen's outfits and self-contained breathing apparatus may be required to do so under this rule," Kjaerulff said.
"The proposed (STCW) rule requires all mariners serving on seagoing vessels to demonstrate competency in basic firefighting via live fire exercises every five years. Currently, mariners who can demonstrate one year of sea time in the five years prior to their (certificate) renewal are exempted this requirement," he said. "Also, deck and engine officers would have to demonstrate ongoing competency in advanced firefighting every five years. Currently, advanced firefighting is a once-in-a-career requirement."
Kjaerulff said many of Fremont's clients — the company caters primarily to West Coast operators — aren't waiting for the final rules.
Mariners undergo onboard firefighting response training at a Resolve Marine Group program in Florida. The company says recent STCW amendments emphasize more ongoing training rather than one-time instruction. (Courtesy Resolve Marine Group)
"Many companies are being proactive with training," he said. "The biggest thing is whether STCW applies. If a mariner is strictly doing harbor work, STCW doesn't apply in the strictest sense — (but) some towing companies that do a combination of inshore and offshore work are actually requiring all of their people to meet the STCW standard just so they can assign them freely on any vessel they're needed on. A lot of companies look at it, even if it doesn't apply to them, as a best practice and train (mariners) to that level."
Todd Duke, director of firefighting response for Resolve Marine Group of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said one concern with the STCW guidelines before the Manila Amendments is they didn't take into account that a mariner's firefighting skills can erode.
"If you did basic and advanced firefighting drills and training one time, it was good for the rest of your life basically," Duke said. "The problem is, the (International Maritime Organization) has recognized that people aren't retaining these skills. Even though they're doing some onboard drills, they're not really good or practical drills, so they're not retaining the skills that are needed in an emergency situation."
Mike Heryla, instructor at Washington State Fire Training Academy, said commercial fishing and tugboat companies are being proactive when it comes to new regulations.
"It's going to have quite an impact on the towing industry as well as the commercial fishing industry," he said. "My understanding is that there are a lot of contractual agreements being worked on at this time (for training) to try to get ahead of the start dates, because people feel competition for time and space with their personnel. People who were never required to take firefighting before will have to under the new laws."
Changes on the fire safety front extend to the suppression systems aboard vessels, with many operators opting for clean-agent systems that use Halotron, FM-200 or Novec instead of CO2 or halon, which is no longer commercially manufactured. Water mist systems like HI-FOG are growing in popularity, especially on cruise ships, said Mike Wisby, associate director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) Center for Marine Training and Safety.
"We've done a lot of training for several cruise lines, one of them Holland America, and all of their ships have water mist systems," Wisby said. "Previously they were using CO2 and halon, but a lot of them have converted. In all of the new construction, they're doing water mist."
Duke said the effectiveness of water mist systems is complemented by their environmental advantages.
"They just do an amazing job putting fires out and leaving very little damage, and it's not a hazardous chemical," he said. "It's win-win. There are no environmental problems now or in the future that you have to worry about. It's really grown in the cruise ship industry, which in the past relied more on halon."
Despite the evolution of water mist, Duke said CO2 systems will likely remain a fixture for many operators because they are well suited to certain applications and they are less expensive to install.
"CO2 will probably never go away," he said. 'There are certain cargos out there that you don't want to get wet at all because they react violently with water, so a CO2 system is the best system to use. Your general cargo and bulk carriers are probably going to stay CO2 because that type of system is a whole lot cheaper to put in. (Water mist) is a better-suited system for small cabin fires and trash can fires. You're never going to have a CO2 system in the cabin area."
That point was emphasized by Kjaerulff, who said CO2's ability to suffocate a fire by depriving it of oxygen made it effective but potentially more dangerous than clean agents.
"CO2 is still the most common and it's a great system. It's just that if somebody is trapped in (a space), they're going to die," he said. "That's the advantage of clean agents and water mist. If somebody's trapped in a space and can't get out before you discharge the system, or if it's tripped accidentally and they don't get out in time, they'll probably survive — or at least the agent won't kill them."
To prepare the towing industry for the new regulations on fire protection, the Coast Guard has been conducting voluntary inspections that have revealed problems with CO2 systems on many vessels. It is working with the industry to make the systems safer by improving procedures for bottle storage and maintenance, according to Randy Eberly, fire protection engineer at the Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
"The big thing we've been finding is that because of the small size of the vessels, the CO2 systems are often installed in the engine rooms themselves, which isn't permitted under our regulations simply due to the fact that if you have a fire in the engine room, it could damage the system and then it won't help you extinguish the fire," he said. "So what we did was, in conjunction with the (American Waterways Operators), we put together some guidelines on how vessel operators can come to the Coast Guard and say, 'Hey look, I've got this system in my engine room, I really don't have the space to put it outside the engine room, but I can do certain things to mitigate the problems here.' As a result of that, we can give them an exemption."
While safety will always be a factor, Kjaerulff said that for the operators of many vessels — from workboats to cruise ships — choosing what kind of system to deploy will inevitably come down to economics.
"There are always owners who are going to go with the best, and others who will only go with the minimum required," he said. "A lot of times it's a decision made because they don't know the difference, or quite honestly it's about saving money."