STCW mariners will need to renew some fire training ashore


A blaze is raging inside a tanker’s engine space. Two teams of mariners prepare to enter. A pair of fire hoses are at the ready.

Dennis Rowan, a licensed chief engineer and the most experienced firefighter in the group, barks out instructions: “Access man, secure power and check the door for heat!”

The response comes back: “Power secured. Hot door!”

One team will set a hose to low-velocity fog, while the other hose will run high-velocity fog.

“Hose teams One and Two, water on!” Rowan shouts. “Advance to the door. Stick the nozzles in the door and get low! One knee!”

Dennis Symons

Instructor Galen Gouzoulis signals a pair of hose teams who are learning how to battle a fire on the deck of a mock tanker ship at the Military Sealift Command East Coast Training Center in New Jersey.

After a few moments, Rowan is ready to signal hose team No. 2 to move in. “Water off, number One. Now stand up! Two, enter the space. One, when you can, get in there.”

While a lead firefighter inside the hot engine space aims the nozzle at the flames, three others on each team help feed the hose through the door. After a few minutes of spraying water patterns onto the flames, the fire appears to be out.

“Cool the engine with water,” Rowan tells the group.

While this fire was real, the ship was not. It was a mock tanker constructed on dry land — the grounds of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) East Coast Training Center, miles away from the nearest navigable waterway. Rowan, a licensed chief engineer who retired from the Coast Guard, is an instructor with the center’s firefighting program, which trains MSC personnel, academy cadets and outside civilian mariners.

Hands-on practice extinguishing real fires has always been part of Basic Firefighting and Advanced Firefighting courses. For years, the training has been mandatory for officers who sail internationally under Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW). They had to take the full course only once — and then participate in regular onboard training during their sea time.

Starting in 2017, for the first time, officers will need to renew firefighting course work every five years. That’s one provision of the Coast Guard’s recent final rule based on the STCW Manila Amendments of 2010. As with certain basic safety training, the regulators determined that mariners should be required to show continued competency in firefighting skills. Some activities with direct impact on the person’s ability to perform in an emergency — notably fighting real fires — cannot be done safely on ship.

In the U.S., the Coast Guard has issued a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC), which outlines the new requirements for re-establishing Advanced Firefighting competency.

On Scene News/Brian McCarthy

An eruption of flames from the simulated engine compartment awaits trainees who will soon carefully enter the space aboard the tanker during the Military Sealift Command’s firefighting course.

“Mariners holding STCW officer endorsements are required to demonstrate continued proficiency for the revalidation of the Advanced Firefighting endorsement,” the Coast Guard wrote in the NVIC.

Based on that and other guidance, the training schools are preparing to create refresher and revalidation courses, with a greater emphasis on the practical competencies, said Robert Farmer, director of MSC’s East Coast Training Center, in Freehold, N.J.

“The way we were assessing, for the most part, was a written test. STCW 2010 and the Coast Guard are stressing more assessments based on hands-on and how you perform in the fire field — both as an individual and as a group,” Farmer said. “Although they all count, you still have to pass the written test.”

After Dec. 31, 2016, U.S. mariners renewing credentials under STCW will need to attend land-based training sessions. Training schools will face extra demand beginning probably in the fourth quarter of 2016, said Julie Keim, owner of Compass Courses in Edmonds, Wash.

“When this rule comes into effect, the USCG will allow existing mariners to prove some aspects of continued competency in Advanced Firefighting by showing one year of sea time (beyond the boundary line) in the past five years,” Keim said.

“But even with qualifying sea time, some assessments must be done during an Advanced Firefighting revalidation course, or by attending (an) Advanced Firefighting refresher course, or retaking the full Advanced Firefighting course,” she said.

Based on the final rule and earlier guidance, the training schools believe they can create refresher courses that are 16 hours long, or two days. Revalidation courses can be achieved in one eight-hour day, said Chris Grossie, STCW coordinator with Safety Management Systems Training Academy in Lafayette, La.

“Anybody who is due for STCW in 2017 will need (the retraining),” Grossie said. “It’s a new curriculum. They’ve never required refreshers in the past. So we’re still developing it. It’s going to be mostly hands-on. We’re going to have to add some curriculum, but we’re going to try to minimize that so we can get all the hands-on done in one day.”

Considering the peril of fires at sea, Grossie said it makes sense to require mariners to show that they remember their original training and are still capable. “Nothing prepares you better than to actually do the real thing. It’s the realism,” he said.

Dennis Symons

Trainer William Brewer, center, barks out commands while teaching a hose team how to handle a JS-10 foam nozzle.

Students may score well on a written exam, but no one is sure how they will truly perform until “you put them in a fire, with the water and all the smoke and the nervousness involved, with people panicking and overreacting,” he said.

The renewed practice in the fire field will give mariners — and their crew mates — more confidence.

“If you prepare them, even people who think they’re claustrophobic can overcome that, and they are able to perform in a real environment,” Grossie said.

The courses don’t just teach mariners how to aim a hose. At the MSC school in New Jersey, the trainees learn about different nozzles and foam, donning protective equipment and deploying a fire extinguisher properly. They learn cooperation including assisting each other with their self-contained breathing apparatus and rotating toward the hose nozzle when the lead man declares “I’m tired!” and needs to drop back.

Dennis Symons

A firefighting trainee, with a self-contained breathing apparatus, prepares to enter the burning engine room space aboard the tanker at the Military Sealift Command East Coast Training Center.

Mariners who haven’t attended firefighting training in a long time may notice a greater focus on blazes involving equipment such as boilers and enclosed spaces including paint lockers. Substances including petrochemicals, insulation and cleaning solvents will be discussed more.

“Before, the Advanced Firefighting course simply addressed fighting fires in an engine room, living space, cargo hold and galley,” Keim said. “Now there is a heavy emphasis on dangerous cargoes and hazardous spaces.”

The advanced assessments “are also asking mariners to demonstrate competence in coordinating with shoreside authorities in a much broader manner than in the earlier model course,” she said. “Additionally, there are new assessments in pre-inspecting ships’ firefighting equipment for compliance with statutory and classification surveys.”

Before 2016, the training schools will undergo course certification, which has already begun as a result of Coast Guard guidance issued in October 2012. Grossie said the next guidance from the Coast Guard may be the requirements of who can be considered a qualified instructor.

Dennis Symons

Two trainees with hand-held fire extinguishers practice dousing a simulated galley fire on the grounds of the Military Sealift Command East Coast Training Center in New Jersey.

“Some of the areas we’re being asked to train are stability and maintenance of firefighting equipment and detectors,” Farmer said. “It was always there, but it was not emphasized that much. There’s more attention to it.”

Although the refreshers and revalidations won’t be required for two-plus years, Farmer urges mariners to plan ahead to learn the requirements and to ensure that they will find a slot in firefighting and other safety courses they may need.

“My advice would be to look at, of course, the expiration of their Merchant Mariner Credential, and try to line up a lot of different (requirements) at the same time,” Farmer said. “If you wait until the last minute, I don’t know how many schools will be offering the refresher training.”

By Professional Mariner Staff