As a marine surveyor, one of the items that I always check is the vessels fire extinguishers. Unfortunately, more often than not, I find equipment that is old and in poor condition. Keeping this equipment in working order is vital to the safety of a vessel and its occupants. However, I have found that few owners pay much attention to the fire systems onboard. Admittedly, these are not very exciting pieces of equipment, and hopefully you will never have to use them, but if you do need to use them, it is vital that they work.  Checking your system is not difficult, but it does require some time and possibly some expense. The first step is to understand your fire extinguishers, what types are available and what is required.

Types and sizes of fire extinguishers:

Although there are many types and sizes of fire extinguishers available  I will stick to those most commonly found onboard your average pleasure boat in the 20-60’ range. The types or classes of fire extinguishers are based letter designations for the type of fuel a fire is burning and are assigned by National Fire Protection Agency as follows:

Type A: Common combustible solids such as wood, paper, cloth, canvas, cushions, and many plastics. Dry chemicals and water work well on these fires.

Type B: Fires involving oils, greases, paints, solvents and gases. These would most commonly be engine, galley, and stored liquid chemical fires. Dry chemical and clean agents work well. Never use water.

Type C: Electrical fires. Dry chemical and clean agents work well. Liquid agents should not be used as they present a shock hazard.

Types of agents or what inside the fire extinguisher:

                These are the agents you are most likely to find on your average pleasure boat.

Dry chemicals: Can be used on B,C and A,B, C fires. The label will indicate which. They are the most common type for small portable fire extinguishers found on most boats. All have a B,C rating which is the minimum required by the USCG. Some are rated for A,B,C and this is preferred for marine use but not required. Dry chemicals work by cooling and smothering the fire with heavy smoke. The powder can be caustic and if discharged effort should be made to completely clean anything the power has come in contact with.

Clean agents: Called clean agents because they leave little or no residue after being discharged. The most common of these are CO2, Halon and now Halon substitutes. The Environmental Protection Agency has banned the use of Halon due to its CFC’s. Halon is now being replaced with FE 241, FE200, HFC-227 and Halotron 1. Clean agents are not as common in small portable extinguishers as is dry chemical but you can find some units that use it. They work by displacing oxygen in the air thereby smothering the fire. The advantage is that they do not leave any residue. The disadvantage is that because they displace the oxygen they are a suffocation hazard when used in confined spaces such as the cabin of a boat.

Sizes of extinguishers:

Sizes for portable fire extinguishers are set by the US Coast Guard and use Roman numerals, I being the smallest and V being the largest. It’s rare to see anything bigger than a size II on the average sized pleasure boat.

Size I is 4-5 pounds clean agent and 2-3 pounds dry chemical, Commonly this size is not serviceable meaning it cannot be recharged should it be used or lose its charge. Check the label to see if it can be serviced or not. These are by far the most common size found on the average boat.

Size II is 15 pounds clean agent and 10 pounds dry chemical. As these units are larger and more expensive most (but not all) are serviceable. Once again check your label. Serviceable units can be recharged by a certified fire extinguisher service center if they lose charge or are used.

The US Coast Guard by law requires all pleasure boats with engine compartments, and or with permanently installed fuel tanks to carry fire extinguishers.  The minimum number and type are as follows:

16-26’    One B-I

26-40’    One B-II or Two B-I, Note: (A fixed system equals one B-I.)

40-65’    One B-II and One B-I or Three B-I.  (Note: A fixed system equals one B-I or Two B-II.)

The “B-I” and “B-II” are USCG designations for fire extinguisher types and sizes. The “B” is based on a complicated system set up by the USCG and the “I” and “II” are for the size. Suffice to say always check the label to make sure it is USCG approved. At minimum it should be for B, C fires with A, B, C preferred.

All extinguishers should be professionally inspected and tagged at least once a year and a quick visual inspection done monthly.  However for pleasure boats this is a recommendation and not a requirement. More often than not, I find that most boaters rarely do either of these. The USCG requires you have onboard “approved” fire extinguishers; this leaves it up to the boat owner to maintain their equipment in good working order. If you are boarded by the USCG or local waterway officers and you have fire extinguishers that are not fully charged, or are old and in poor condition you are likely to get a citation.

 It is not cost effective to have a service company come down to your boat once a year for only 3-4 small hand held extinguishers. It would be more efficient to take them to an approved service facility to have them checked. The average cost for this is $35-$75 per extinguisher depending on size and type.  

For the small disposable units this might not be cost effective and it might be more realistic to just replace them on a regular basis. Most companies provide a 6 year warranty and a 12 year self life. After 12 years they should be disposed of. I would recommend replacing after no more than 6 years. You can tell the age of your unit by looking on the bottom; there you will find a 2 digit date number indicating its manufacture date. It is a good idea to look at this when you purchase a new unit as you want to make sure you are not getting one that has been in stock for 2-3 years.

Whether you take your units in for professional inspections or not, you should know how to inspect them yourself so that you can be sure you have safe working units. How should you inspect them? The first thing you should do is remove them from their bracket and check the gauge. If the needle is in the red or even very close to it you should replace it.  The next thing you should do is visually inspect the canister and nozzle. Check for rust, corrosion, and dents. Look into the nozzle to be sure it is not blocked by anything.  Make sure the safety pin is intact and that the handle is not bent or broken.  Check the bracket to make sure it is in good condition. Too often, I see units tossed into a locker or cabinet, unsecured. Check the label to verify it is USCG approved; this is often in very small print. 

For dry chemical units turn the fire extinguisher upside down and tap the cylinder with a rubber mallet. You should feel or hear the powder move inside.  This is important as the powder tends to get packed down at the bottom. 

For clean agent units you should weigh the extinguisher to verify it is within manufactures specifications. The minimum and maximum weights will be on the label, make sure it falls within that range. Even with these self- inspections, I stress the importance of having professionals look at all units at least once a year.

Lastly, you should think about the number and location of your fire extinguishers. Just because the USCG has set a minimum number to be onboard does not mean this is all you should have. A friend who runs a ATX Party Boat and Pontoon Rental Lake Austin TX company agreed with me that this varies heavily, a size I will only fire for about 8-12 seconds, not very long to put out a fire. If you only have 2 of these onboard, you will not have much defense from a fire. I would recommend at least doubling what is required. When installing fire extinguishers, think about likely places a fire could start. The galley, the engine compartment, battery compartments, and electrical panels are all places fires can start. Place fire extinguishers near these areas and near all exits from the cabin. You want to make sure if there is a fire you are not trapped inside so have units placed so that you can use them to clear your exit. Also, it is a good idea to have units in all sleeping spaces so that if a fire should break out at night, you will not be trapped. Lockers containing fire extinguishers should have a red label on the outside reading “Fire Extinguisher Inside.” As skipper, it is your duty to make sure your guests know where all safety equipment is kept as well.

It is all too easy to forget about your fire fighting system until you need it, and then it may be too late. Take the time now to inspect and upgrade your system. Make it a habit to check your equipment often and have it serviced annually. Replace the small disposable units on a regular basis. Have a fire safety plan, and strategically place your portable units in locations close to hazard areas. With luck, you will never need to use any of your firefighting equipment, but it is nice to know that it will work if you do need to.  In Part II we will look at Fixed engine compartment systems.

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