Dockside Dangers: Structural firefighting response to marine incidents

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By Paul E. Calderwood, Calderwood Consulting International

I have been following the tragic story for the past few months from Newark NJ where on July 5, 2023 around 9:30 pm.

The Newark Fire Department was notified about a fire on the Grande Costa d’Avorio.

The ship was loaded with 1200 junk cars and a fire broke out during the loading process on deck level 10.

During the fire attack two firefighters called a “may-day” and they were found removed from the ship and succumbed to their injures.

For over 40 years I have advocating for more and better training for structural firefighters on responding to and handing fires on marine vessels, the reason for this article.

In 1986 I was hired as firefighter with the Everett (MA) Fire Department and having grown up there I knew about the city, its industry and its people but what I did not know about was the number of vessels that came into the port of Everett.

Everett is on the north side of the Boston Harbor and the home of Exxon Oil Company and Distrigas large Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facility.

The department had not had a major incident with any of the vessels that docked there so there were no plans in place to respond to an incident involving a vessel.

In 1990 the US Coast Guard was in the process of putting into place the OPA 90 regulations regarding vessel pollution safety.

The plans called for the oil companies to have plans in place for a pollution related incident and I moved forward to expand these plans to also include fires and other emergencies.

Shortly thereafter, the Port Emergency Planning Committee was formed for Boston Harbor to help develop plans for vessel incidents.

The plans included equipment, communications, response capabilities, and training.

In the introduction of the 1996 NFPA 1405 guide there is a comment made by the committee that expresses what every firefighter should understand regarding vessels.

“The tactics and strategies utilised to attack a fire aboard a vessel are in many ways similar to those used routinely in attacking structure fires.

However, there are many aspects of marine fire fighting that warrant special attention because of the unique environment encountered aboard a vessel.”.

The lack of pre-planning and training of firefighters can and possibly will result in the serious injury or death to firefighters.

The Texas City explosion

Thinking about the background of the problem of shipboard fire fighting the best place to start is with the Texas City Explosion of 1947.

The morning of April 16, 1947, a morning that many must have thought was the end of the world, and for some people it did become the end of their world.

A ship in the Texas City harbor, the Grand Camp, bearing a cargo of ammonium nitrate fertiliser destined for Europe caught fire.

The fire department was on the scene trying to put out the fire, and a crowd of people (many children) had gathered to watch the firefighters.

The bright orange color that came out of the black smoke seemed to catch everyone’s attention.

The crowd must not have known that ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, or they didn’t know what was in the cargo hold of the ship.

The standard plan for towing a dangerously burning ship from the harbor was not implemented until it was too late, and the tugboat didn’t arrive in time to prevent what happened next.

A little after 9:00 a.m.

the Texas City Disaster, as it is often referred to, happened as the Grand Camp exploded.

Throughout the night, fear mounted because another freighter, the High Flyer, which was also loaded with ammonium nitrate as well as sulfur, had also been burning all day.

Tugs had tried in vain to tow her out of the ruined harbor.

At 1:00 a.m. on April 17, everyone was ordered away from the area.

At 1:10 a.m. the High Flyer exploded in the most violent of all the blasts, taking with her another ship, the Wilson B. Keene.

It also destroyed a concrete warehouse and a grain elevator and triggered even more fires.

Almost the entire fire department had been lost in the first explosion, along with plant workers, dockworkers, school children, and other bystanders.

Windows rattled in Baytown and a fine mist of black oil rained in Galveston. The losses from the disaster were unprecedented.

Nearly 600 deaths in a town of about 16,000 is a terrible toll. It is impossible to arrive at an exact figure because many bodies were never recovered.

The loss of these three vessels and the devastation to the city was nothing compared to the loss of the fire department from one incident where the department was obviously not prepared or trained to handle a vessel fire.

I wish I could say that because of this incident that the fire service has learned and today has changed its ways but I that found that it is not true.

Many port fire departments still do not have a written plan for what they will do when faced with a fire of this same magnitude.

Coast Guard response

Presently many departments are still of the belief that when there is a fire on a vessel that they respond to that they will fight it as if it was a fire in any other structure or that they will contact the United States Coast Guard and they will respond and handle the situation.

The USCG has changed their response mode to vessel fires and the official response from the Coast Guard is: “Generally, Coast Guard personnel shall not directly engage in fire fighting activities on other than Coast Guard units except when necessary to save a life or when possible to avert a significant threat with minimal risk to Coast Guard personnel…

“During marine fire-fighting situations involving vessels or waterfront facilities, Commanding Officers of Coast Guard units shall adopt a conservative response posture, and shall focus their actions on those traditional Coast Guard activities listed above not requiring unit personnel to enter into a hazardous environment or be unduly tasked….

“Coast Guard personnel shall not engage in independent fire-fighting operations, except to save a life or in the early stages of a fire to avert a significant threat without undue risk.”

The problem faced by the many fire departments is that they feel that they cannot train all their personnel on the hazards of the vessels and what the potential incidents could be.

A coordinated effort of multiple departments and agencies is needed to attack and control a vessel fire. This also means the use of mutual aid fire departments.

A department has to recognised that a vessel fire in their city is a problem to our department and our city, how do we explain to the chief and mayors of the surrounding cities and towns that their firefighters need the same level of training as we do.

During a large-scale incident there could be multiple mutual aid companies at the scene and if these firefighters have not been properly trained, how can they be used by the OIC in the fire attack?

An OIC can use untrained firefighter to provide water supply, air bottle movement and general assistance and assign the actual fire attack to those members with the specialised training, like the way we handle hazardous materials responses.

Levels of training

The NFPA Standard 1405, entitled “Guide for Land-based Firefighters Who Respond to Marine Vessel Fires” 1996 edition, has become the basic guide for departments in the development of preplans.

In the introduction of the NFPA 1405 guide there is a comment made by the committee that expresses what every firefighter should understand regarding vessel: “The tactics and strategies utilised to attack a fire aboard a vessel are in many ways similar to those used routinely in attacking structure fires.

“However, there are many aspects of marine fire fighting that warrant special attention because of the unique environment encountered aboard a vessel.”

The IFSTA Manual for Marine Fire Fighting for Land Based Firefighters describes the levels of training the fire department should have:

Awareness Level: Firefighters trained to the awareness level will have general knowledge of safety issues related to the marine environment and unique environmental factors and their impact on shipboard fire fighting.

Operations Level: Shipboard firefighters trained to the operations level will understand the actions necessary to ensure their personal safety.

Technician Level: Shipboard firefighters trained to the technician level will have an understanding of the hazards found in the marine environment and their influences on shipboard fire fighting operations.

Training, training and training are the three most important aspects that a fire department should be involved with to prepare their members.

With proper training the faster and safer an incident can be mitigated with less probability of firefighter injuries or deaths.

Incident Command training is also needed because more technical areas need to be covered like the operation of ship systems like ventilation and suppression systems is vital.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

This is part one of two. Part two was published in the May issue of International Fire and Safety Journal. Read part two here.

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