Firefighting System Ineffective in Tour Boat Fire
New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission has released its report into the tourist vessel PeeJay V which caught fire and sank because the main firefighting system was ineffective and staff did not fully understand how it should work.
On January 18, 2016, the PeeJay V was on an all-day excursion from Whakatāne out to White Island with 53 passengers and seven crew on board. The PeeJay V was near the end of the journey and approaching the Whakatāne Harbour entrance when fire broke out in the engine room.
The crew released the fixed CO2 fire extinguisher into the engine room, which suppressed the fire for a short time. However, the fire quickly escalated, forcing the skipper to order everyone to abandon the vessel. Several vessels in the vicinity responded to the skipper’s distress call. Everyone was eventually transferred to the assisting vessels. However, due to the speed with which the fire gained intensity several passengers were forced to enter the water without a life-jacket.
The crew were not able to access all of the life-jackets on board because of the fire. For the same reason they were not able to launch the flotation raft that was stored on top of the vessel’s flybridge.
The PeeJay V burnt to the waterline and sank. One crew member suffered from smoke inhalation, but otherwise nobody else was seriously injured.
Due to the lack of physical evidence to work with, the Commission was unable to conclusively establish the cause of the fire. The Commission found that the absence of a fire detection and automatic alarm system on the PeeJay V meant the crew had limited warning time and opportunity to respond to the fire and prepare the life-saving apparatus.
The Commission also found that the CO2 fire suppression system, which was supposed to work by displacing the air in the engine room with CO2, was not effective in suppressing the fire. This was because air was able to enter the engine room through several openings, including a cable duct that had no means of being closed.
The Commission also found that the placement of the life-saving apparel and equipment on board was appropriate. The fact that it could not all be accessed highlights the difficulty operators of smaller vessels have in choosing where to locate such equipment.
Three main safety issues identified during the inquiry were:
• Maritime Rules did not require the PeeJay V to have fire detection or automatic fire alarms installed even though it could carry up to 90 passengers and operate up to 12 nautical miles from the coast.
• The CO2 fixed fire-fighting system installed in the engine room could not be fully effective in extinguishing the fire because the space it was protecting could not be fully closed down.
• The builder and operators of the vessel did not fully appreciate the principles of how the CO2 fixed fire-fighting system operated.
Maritime rules did not require the PeeJay V to have fire detection or automatic fire alarms installed even though she could carry up to 90 passengers and operate up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. Maritime New Zealand has agreed to review the maritime rules about fire alarms and remote extinguishers in vessels of this type with enclosed engine spaces. It will also encourage people who design, install and use CO2 fixed fire-fighting systems to fully document and understand how these systems work.