What's in Your Fire Main?
The general alarm rings in the middle of the night. Ten seconds of ear-ringing, nerve-jangling racket designed to raise the crew from a deep slumber. You stagger from your cabin, struggling into the clothes you've set out every night for years anticipating this very moment. Fellow crew members rush by in the passageway and you hear that dreaded word. Fire. There's a fire on board and now, you and your mates must confront it!
The wind howls on deck as you muster at the emergency station. While the assigned personnel don their fireman's ensembles and breathing apparatus, the on-scene leader directs you to lay out a fire hose. This hose will be the weapon with which the fire will be attacked.
Minutes later - minutes that have felt like hours - the firefighters are ready to make entry into the space on fire. The heat and smoke have driven all but those firefighters back, and you stand next to the fire hydrant, awaiting the signal to turn on the water. The signal is given and you rapidly spin the valve open, but nothing happens! There is no rush of water filling the canvas hose. There is no weapon with which to fight the swelling fire.
Frantically, the crew removes the hose from the hydrant only to see a small trickle of mud dripping on the deck. The heat grows on your back, while your throat starts to burn from the smoke being inhaled. And in the back of your mind, the realization grows that you just might be using the lifeboat tonight, as well.
Far fetched? Do you think this scenario could play out on a modern merchant vessel these days? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. On the best funded and manned vessels this exact scenario could occur, if close attention isn't paid to the maintenance and exercising of the firefighting equipment.
It's almost taken for granted that when the valve on a fire station hydrant is opened that water will flow out. The truth is that there are many factors. Factors such as fire pumps; factors such as corrosion that fill the fire main pipes with scale; factors such as where the fire pump was last run. Was it in a muddy river or was it in the clear waters of the open ocean?
And then there is the factor of design. Perhaps that plugged fire main was predestined long before your ship was launched, when she was just plans on the naval architect's drafting table. Dead-ended pipes and low points in the system will forever be the spots where that scale, rust and mud collect.
MSC.1/Circ.1432 (link below) addresses the required maintenance and inspection of firefighting systems on board and is a great place to start. Often, your Safety Management System (SMS) will address this circular and SOLAS Chapter II-2 on Fire Protection, Detection and Extinction.
The long and short? You must maintain your firefighting systems, including those mundane fire hydrants and fire main. Operating these systems on an annual basis is required. Operating them more frequently and/or on a rotating basis might be prudent and a good practice.
Why don't we though? The number one excuse is probably time pressures. It's pretty easy to rig up those normal hoses from the weather decks during monthly fire drills. It takes a lot longer to run a hose from the lower level of the engine room to discharge over the side. And what happens when you drain hoses and re-stow gear? Well, not too many chief engineers are going to be excited about that water you just added to the bilges. It is a necessary evil, however. If those stations are never exercised, one can't be sure that they will operate in an emergency.
Aside from the very personal "save yourself from the fire" aspect of maintaining the firefighting systems, there are the checks and balances of the maritime industry with which to deal. What do we mean by that? Port State Control (PSC) is what we mean.
In 2012, the Paris MoU conducted a Concentrated Inspection Campaign (CIC) on SOLAS Chapter II-2 compliance. Of the vessels detained as the result of the CIC, close to 13 percent were due to fire main and fire pump deficiencies. Think about that; better than one out of 10 ships could be the ship in the above scenario.
In 2014, the Riyadh MoU launched a similar CIC on fire safety. Asking yourself the questions PSC inspectors asked as a self-assessment might be enlightening. At a minimum, it would be a good training aid for your crew and could heighten your fire safety posture. Mechanical systems operate best when frequently exercised. It is also an opportunity for the crew to learn about different parts of the firefighting system and vessel. There are many positive aspects to a proactive maintenance system when it comes to your fire main - not the least of which is water flowing out of the fire hydrant.
Let's be safe out there.
Additional Reading and Links
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.