Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on August 22, 2019.

Close Quarters

As the global maritime transportation industry thrives, safety experts worry not enough fire departments are prepared to fight fires on large marine vessels—and those vessels are often docked dangerously close to shore


It’s a sunny afternoon in late July, and Jeffrey Post and I are out for a drive. Post is assistant fire chief at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, the US Navy’s primary submarine base on the East Coast. He mentions various points of interest as he steers his pickup truck south along Military Highway, toward the mouth of the Thames River and the Port of New London. Out the passenger-side window, the waters of the Thames glisten deep blue.

Post nods at structures that hug the river’s shore and at areas where the river narrows, including one a little more than 300 yards wide, where Interstate 95 runs over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge. On the other side of the river, the New London side, I can see the long, gray, slab-like piers that regularly welcome large cargo vessels that arrive from around the world, hauling everything from salt to oil to hazardous chemicals. The salt ships, in particular, need a lot of maintenance, Post says.

His comment suggests the purpose of our ride, which is to survey what could happen to this placid stretch of New England river in the event of a fire, explosion, or other major marine-related incident. Maintenance on cargo ships—and many other types of vessels—can trigger fires or explosions, Post says, and fires on large vessels, including the submarines housed at his base, are something Post spends a lot of time thinking about. The most challenging fire he ever responded to was a 2012 blaze on the USS Miami, a 26-year-old nuclear submarine that was drydocked for maintenance at a US Navy shipyard in Maine. The fire, intentionally set by a civilian worker, gutted the 362-foot-long vessel, inflicting $450 million in damage and forcing the Navy to scrap the sub. 

While a fire of that magnitude has never occurred at the Groton sub base or the Port of New London—or any port in the United States in recent history, for that matter—Post worries about what could happen if one did. As we drive, Post calls attention to homes, restaurants, businesses, parks, ferry terminals, and infrastructure like major highways and bridges—all of it in harm’s way in a major event. Although the Port of New London isn’t especially large compared to other US ports—it’s not even ranked in the top 100 in terms of annual trade tonnage—it’s still a major economic boon to Connecticut, which has invested tens of millions of dollars into the port’s infrastructure in recent years. A major fire or explosion there could have a devastating economic impact.

“People have this misconception that if a fire or explosion happens on a boat, even in a port, it’ll be contained,” Post tells me. “But that’s not necessarily true.” His concern makes me think of a marine disaster from a century ago—the 1917 explosion that destroyed much of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In that incident, a munitions ship heading into the port of the Canadian city collided with another vessel, resulting in an enormous explosion that destroyed thousands of buildings and left nearly every structure within a one-mile radius uninhabitable. More than 1,500 people died. In parts of New London, one mile measured from the middle of the Thames River stretches across most of the city’s downtown, where thousands of people live, work, and visit.

Compounding Post’s concerns over how close a marine incident would be to land, property, and people in the Port of New London is the fact that, in general, fires on ships are extremely challenging incidents to respond to—for many in the fire service, they represent the worst-case scenario. A 2009 article in Fire Engineering magazine described fires on large marine vessels as universally “dreaded” and “feared” within the fire service. With Post’s department—a specialized force of marine firefighting experts—located just upriver from the Port of New London, the area may be better-protected than most. But experts including Post worry about what the situation looks like elsewhere in the US, and whether fire departments—especially traditional, non-specialized departments with a focus on structure fires—are ready to handle a blaze on a big boat. 

According to Lawrence Russell, an NFPA staffer who specializes in fires on marine vessels, that concern prompted the US Coast Guard to recently ask NFPA to include new information related to responding to fires on marine vessels in the annex section of NFPA 307, Standard for the Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves. The new information will appear in the annex of the 2021 edition of the standard. NFPA also publishes several other documents related to marine fires and marine firefighting, including NFPA 1005, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Marine Firefighting for Land-Based Firefighters, and NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments that Respond to Marine Vessel Fires. Experts, however, say those documents, while offering comprehensive guidance on fighting fires on marine vessels, are underutilized within the fire service, and suggest this could be a problem as the global maritime transportation industry and the United States’ production of warships continue to grow.    

“The good news is there hasn’t been a big fire on a large passenger or cargo vessel in a US port in a long time,” said Russell. “The bad news is we’re overdue for one. The question many of my Coast Guard contacts have is, ‘Are we ready?’” 

Big ships, big challenges for firefighters 

For many of the roughly 100 firefighters who responded to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNS) in Kittery, Maine, on the night of May 23, 2012, the blaze aboard the USS Miami was the worst fire they’d ever experienced. 

“The best way I could describe it is fighting a fire in a wood stove and climbing down a chimney,” one PNS firefighter told investigators, according to a statement from the International Association of Fire Fighters. Another shipyard firefighter described to local reporters the searing pain that shot through his shins as he crawled through four inches of boiling water inside the sub’s hull; he was never able to return to firefighting. Post was one of 12 firefighters from his department who made the 165-mile trek from the Navy sub base in Groton to PNS. The crew descended down the sub’s hatch several times that night to fight the flames. Seven years later, he struggles to even discuss the incident. “It was just a very, very challenging fire,” he told me. “I had the worst, mind-crushing headache that entire night, and as soon as they said, ‘OK, the fire’s out,’ it vanished. It was from pure stress. It was an incredibly emotional and stressful evening.” 

Many firefighters who have responded to ship fires have stories similar to Post’s. “The theme I always see when I read media reports of these incidents is that firefighters always say it was one of the most challenging things they’ve ever done, and they say something along the lines of, ‘It was like responding to a fire inside a pizza oven,’” Russell said. The heat and managing heat exhaustion are big challenges, he added, and many other complications can arise, too. For example, openings to the ship and passageways inside the vessel can be so narrow that firefighters have to remove their turnout gear just to fit through. 

The challenges of fighting fires on large marine vessels are essentially born out of four factors: the design of the ship, the way the ship is docked, its cargo, and the lines of communication that must be established before and during firefighting operations. All of these make fighting fires on large marine vessels very different from fighting structure fires, which experts say are typically, though not always, much simpler. 

This is because, in most developed nations, structures like homes and offices are built in compliance with widely used fire and life safety codes, giving them much more consistent dimensions for hallways and stairwells, multiple ways in and out, emergency lighting, and so on. On a ship, on the other hand, passageways are typically narrow and could be dark, watertight doorways are often small and framed by rounded partitions known in the Navy as “knee-knockers,” and there may be only one way in and out of the vessel. Additionally, a steel ship can’t be ventilated like a wooden home in the event of fire, nor can you keep flowing water on a blaze without simultaneously removing water from the ship, lest you risk sinking it.

“The way ships are constructed present huge challenges, the way it traps heat and affects fire growth,” said Forest Herndon, a 36-year veteran of the marine firefighting industry who owns a New Jersey–based company that teaches land-based firefighters how to fight fires on ships. “Firefighters could be ascending steep, slippery ladders or trying to walk on decks that heat up to the point where their feet are burning. Shipboard fires burn a lot hotter than fires in land-based structures, and you don’t have the ability to ventilate these fires, so your methods of addressing them have to change.” 

Herndon told me that ambient air temperatures during ship fires have been recorded above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. For comparison, a 2016 study published in the journal Fire Technology characterized ambient temperatures of 300 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit as a “severe” thermal environment for firefighters. 

Compounding the structural challenges of fighting fires in large marine vessels are barriers to accessing the ships in the first place, especially when they’re drydocked, as well as what materials might be found onboard. 

For all ships, drydocking—the process by which ships are lifted out of the water at a shipyard—is a common way of housing them during repairs, but it can present challenges to responders trying to get onboard. This was clear as I observed a submarine drydocked for repairs at the base in Groton. The sub had been lifted dozens of feet above the ground and was surrounded almost entirely by a dense thicket of metal scaffolding—a clear inhibitor to getting inside the vessel. “As you can see,” Post told me as I looked at the lifted, mostly obscured behemoth, “access is a big challenge, and that delay in getting water on a fire means a bigger fire.” 

For cargo ships, in particular, the materials onboard have been cause for mounting concerns among safety experts in recent years. According to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), over the last two decades, the amount of chemicals being transported by marine vessels worldwide in terms of ton-miles, or one ton of freight carried over one mile, has increased by about 88 percent; similarly, the amount of gas has increased by over 190 percent, and the amount of oil by about 30 percent. The rise in US liquified natural gas (LNG) exports is a good example. US exports of LNG hit record levels in late 2018 in large part due to a new processing facility that opened on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi, Texas, according to the San Antonio Business Journal. “Some other major [US] ports are now prepping to have the capability to export LNG,” Herndon told me. “That could potentially create a specialized fire in a marine environment that on its own makes things more challenging.” 

In March, the Wall Street Journal published an article on a spate of fires that occurred on large vessels at sea earlier this year, which pointed to the ships’ contents as well as their size as likely contributors to the severity of the fires. “Ship operators, insurers and regulators increasingly are focusing on the chemicals, batteries, and other goods that can trigger or feed a fire,” the paper reported. “The potential damage from such incidents has grown as carriers have moved to ever-larger vessels, concentrating more containers on a smaller number of ships. That can raise the chances that dangerous goods are onboard and the rush to handle many thousands of boxes at port call may raise the chances that poorly packaged dangerous goods can slip through.” 

The final factor that makes fighting fires on large marine vessels difficult is the bevy of communication responsibilities and challenges that arise before and during marine firefighting operations.

Before even getting onto a ship or inside a submarine, firefighters need permission from the ship’s captain to board, a practice dictated by centuries-old maritime rules. When it comes to military ships, that permission may be delayed out of a desire to ensure security, while on cargo ships or passenger vessels, it may be delayed simply out of tradition or pride. “It’s a cultural thing,” Post said. “It’s the captain’s ship. Under the laws of the sea, we can’t just come onboard and say, ‘We’re here to put your fire out.’ They actually need to want our help.” 

Once onboard, Post explained that having a solid grasp of maritime terminology and technical knowledge is essential for firefighters to stay safe and have the best shot at saving lives and property. One way this is often ensured is through establishing a line of communication with the ship’s head engineer, he said. A key example is communicating with the engineer to ensure the amount of water firefighters plan to put on the fire won’t sink the ship. “We have to be mindful that if there’s water in, there’s got to be water off,” Post said. “Otherwise the ship will do a number of things—listing, hogging, sagging. In a structure fire, 180 gallons a minute is sort of the baseline, but we want to find that happy medium onboard a ship. If we’re throwing on 180 gallons a minute, we have to find a way to get 180 gallons a minute off in order to keep that ship stable.” 

Communication with crewmembers other than the captain can also be fraught with language barriers. While the captain of a ship is required to speak English to communicate with fire departments or other land-based entities at US ports, other crewmembers are not subject to that requirement, and a translator may be needed to facilitate communication. “I don’t know about you, but my Spanish isn’t very good,” Post said with a laugh, after explaining that many cargo ships that come to the Port of New London come from Spanish-speaking countries in South America and Latin America.  

The case for preparedness 

Comprehensive statistics on ship fires can be difficult to find. NFPA statisticians and researchers told me that, while the number of large fires reported on ships is small, there are also problems with the few stats that exist. That’s in part due to the fact that jurisdiction can become unclear when you’re dealing with ships in international waters, and NFPA only receives information on fires that occur within a fire department’s jurisdiction. Groups like the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard keep their own statistics, but it’s difficult to separate fires on large vessels from the many fires that occur on small vessels like speedboats and fishing boats.   

Anecdotally and through news reports, though, it’s clear that blazes on big boats occur with some regularity worldwide. The Wall Street Journal article, for example, said that from December through March, at least one big ship fire occurred every month around the world, including a March 10 blaze off the coast of France that sent a vessel to the bottom of the ocean—a container ship loaded with more than 2,000 cars from luxury automakers like Audi and Porsche. In February, a large fire occurred on a cargo ship docked for construction in Oregon, Ohio, on Lake Erie. It took firefighters over 30 hours to control the blaze, which was worsened by the burning of rubber materials onboard, according to local news stations. No injuries were reported, but the vessel was a total loss. 

Marine vessels
A fire burns on a cargo ship docked in Lake Erie in Oregon, Ohio, in February. Photograph: US Coast Guard.  

Whether the number of fires on large marine vessels increases in the coming years remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: There will exist more opportunities for ships to burn. According to the most recent data available from UNCTAD, the amount of materials shipped via world seaborne trade grew by 4 percent in 2017, the fastest growth recorded in five years—and those numbers were expected to continue rising at a similar rate in subsequent years. With a major expansion of the Panama Canal completed in 2016, all of these ships—particularly cargo ships—are larger than ever before, too. “We’ve started to see ships that are a lot bigger than anything we’re used to,” Herndon told me. “These vessels are huge, and I don’t think any major city, much less a smaller one, is truly prepared.”

When I pressed him more on the idea of preparedness, Herndon softened his stance a bit, rattling off a number of cities whose fire departments he believes are, in fact, well-prepared for fires on large marine vessels—Jacksonville, Florida; Houston, Texas; Seattle, Washington. They’ve shown themselves to be proactive in training their members in marine firefighting, Herndon said. 

But experts stress that fire service preparedness for marine incidents is just one facet of a broader communitywide preparedness. Post told me he’s fortunate in that, in the New London area, not only is the local fire service prepared for responding to fires on large marine vessels, but so is the community as a whole. The county, he said, has a task force—comprised of first responders from various specialties and levels of government, and supported by the US Department of Homeland Security—that plans for maritime emergencies. A fire on a ship carrying hazardous materials is one example of an incident the task force has prepared for. In addition to firefighters working to extinguish such a blaze, Post said other emergency response officials would be tasked with monitoring atmospheric conditions on land and determining whether certain parts of the city need to be evacuated. 

Similar multi-faceted response teams exist around the country. In Portland, Maine, for example, a team called the Casco Bay Emergency Response Group works to protect the city’s harbor, which houses the largest tonnage seaport in New England, despite Portland’s population of about 70,000. The group includes local firefighters, police officers, Coast Guard members, and other emergency response officials, according to Jon Hendricks, deputy chief in charge of the marine division in the Portland Fire Department. The emergency response group meets annually to train for incidents that are most likely to occur in the harbor: collisions between two ships, ships running aground, active shooters aboard ferries, fires on large vessels. “We’ve laid out the parameters of who would be in control, what agencies would respond, and how,” Hendricks said.

Portland is one of many US port cities whose concerns over marine vessel safety include fires or other emergencies aboard cruise ships. Many of these ships tower over the city’s Old Port district as they’re docked near shops, residences, and parking structures, and would represent the largest structure by far that any of the city’s 230 or so firefighters could respond to. Hendricks said his department and the cruise ship companies have worked closely over the years to make sure Portland firefighters are familiar with the vessels in case they need to respond to an incident onboard. Likewise, Post said New London officials have had to consider how they would shelter hundreds or even thousands of cruise ship passengers should an event leave them unable to get back onboard. Historically, fires on cruise ships have generated many of the same challenges as fires on other large marine vessels, said Guy Colonna, senior director of Technical Services at NFPA, and a couple of cruise ship fires that occurred in the 1980s helped spur the creation of NFPA 1405. 

Despite examples of preparedness, experts like Herndon and Post, as well as Russell, believe there are probably more cases of unprepared communities out there than there are cases of prepared ones. “It’s definitely something that could sneak up on folks,” Post said. “Especially as you lose those senior firefighters who may have had experience in the Navy or seen ship fires in the past…so that should be a concern.” Post said the lack of experience fighting fires on large marine vessels became a problem on the night of the USS Miami blaze, when firefighters responding from nearby traditional, non-specialized departments didn’t know how to approach the situation. “Many of the local firefighters just said, ‘I’m not going in there,’” he said. 

The solutions to reversing these preparedness woes already exist, in the form of training and documents from organizations like NFPA. The new NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development, for example, tasks users with identifying the risks to their community and devising a plan for mitigating them. The document “can help coastal communities that house busy ports identify their unique risks,” said Karen Berard-Reed, a community risk reduction strategist at NFPA. “Ports and harbors play a role in critical infrastructure involving transportation, fuel, and trade that should be considered when planning for community safety.” (Read Berard-Reed’s recent NFPA Journal feature article about NFPA 1300 and community risk reduction.) 

From a firefighting standpoint, Russell said he hopes the changes to NFPA 307 prompted by the Coast Guard request will at least underscore the issue of marine firefighting. “The Coast Guard will now have a place to point people to,” he said. While the new annex material won’t dictate marine firefighting tactics, it will make clear the plans that vessel owners must have in place in order to effectively respond to a fire on their ship, such as having a contract with marine salvage and firefighting teams that would respond in the event of a fire. Still, Russell said, the most likely first responders to such an incident outside of the ship’s crew would be a local fire department, which is why documents like NFPA 1005 and NFPA 1405 are critical sources of education. 

But according to Bob Fash, the NFPA staff liaison to both documents, their use isn’t very prevalent. Fewer than 1,000 firefighters representing just three states—Alabama, Florida, and Virginia—are certified as marine firefighters via NFPA 1005. Herndon, who sits on the technical committees for both NFPA 1005 and NFPA 1405, believes that the documents should be used more to address what he sees as a consistent problem, as should the training options that exist. 

“Although we haven’t seen a catastrophic fire in a port, there have still been consistent major shipboard fires in the US, like the USS Miami fire,” Herndon said. “I could probably name in every decade major shipboard fires that have occurred in the US and in each one you’ll see the same problem occurring: a lack of training. The courses are being developed, and NFPA has standards—we just have to get firefighters to take the trainings and use those education materials.” 

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top and historic photographs: Getty Images