Fire On Board!

Boat Fires Can Quickly Get Out Of Hand. Put Passenger Safety First.

Coast Guard crew
A Coast Guard boat crew helped extinguish a fire on this recreational boat. The four people aboard the boat, two adults and two children, were plucked from the burning vessel by a nearby good Samaritan. Official Coast Guard photo

Fire is an infrequent but terrifying occurrence on board a boat. Because of the environment and potential distances involved, firefighting assistance may take awhile to arrive on the scene. Plus, unlike fires on shore, there may be no place to evacuate except into the water. It’s important to make every effort to prevent fires, to have the equipment on board to extinguish fires, and to know what quick action to take should one occur, including having a plan in place should you and your passengers need to abandon ship.

Some 260 fires aboard recreational vessels were reported in 2009, the latest data available, with more than half caused by the ignition of spilled fuel or fuel vapors. Such fires can be catastrophic – often explosions rather than fires – and frequently result in the complete loss of the vessel. As a consequence, although deaths and injuries from fires remain relatively low – just 130 injuries and five fatalities in 2009 – the property loss can be staggering, more than $12.5 million that same year.

Besides fuel fires, recreational boats can also fall victim to the same types and causes of fire you’d find ashore. Overall, here are five to watch out for:

  • Overheated grease in the galley
  • Overloaded or poorly wired electrical systems and appliances
  • Overheated engines/propulsion systems
  • Rags in contact with the turbocharger or exhaust system
  • Leaking fuel or gas lines, or poor refueling technique

What to do if you experience a fire? First, be sure that everyone on board is aware of the fire. Get everyone into their life jackets and prepare to abandon ship, if necessary. Make an emergency call to the Coast Guard over Marine Channel 16, and be prepared to give your position and the number of people on board – you may only get one chance. If you’re the only person aboard and a life raft is available, put it over the side and keep a knife handy should you have to cut it loose from the boat. Do not hesitate. Fires aboard a vessel can get out of control very quickly.

Try to determine the source of the fire; you may need to secure the electricity or close off fuel lines before attempting to extinguish the fire. If you have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved fire extinguisher on board, follow the directions and safety precautions listed on the label. Hold the extinguisher upright and pull the pin. A typical small marine fire extinguisher has a discharge time of only about 8 to 20 seconds, so don’t waste it. Stand 10 to 15 feet away from the fire and squeeze the handle, aiming at the base of the fire not the smoke.

Once the fire is out, vent and clear the compartment of smoke. Assign someone to watch and ensure that the fire doesn’t reignite, and make sure they have the tools to fight it further if it becomes necessary. You want the fire area cold and black. If you used water to extinguish the fire, you may need to begin dewatering to avoid impairing the boat’s stability.

Two Coast Guardsmen fight a pleasure craft fire. Official Coast Guard photo

It’s hard to prepare for fighting a fire on board a recreational boat, but a good safety measure is to consider the three most likely areas for fires – galley, electrical panel and engine compartment – and then think through the different scenarios and how to best respond. You may want to install a marine fire suppression system in the engine compartment since this is an area where a fire may not be detected until it’s seriously out of control.

The federal carriage requirements for fire extinguishers can be a little confusing. The regulations state that a motorboat less than 26 feet in length, propelled by outboard motors and not carrying passengers for hire, need not carry fire extinguishers if the construction will not permit the entrapment of flammable gases or vapors. So, you are asking yourself, what does that mean? Any vessel with any of the following conditions will be require to carry fire extinguishers regardless of length:

  • Closed compartments under thwarts and seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored
  • Double bottoms not sealed to the hull or which are not completely filled with flotation material
  • Closed living spaces
  • Closed stowage compartments in which combustible or flammable materials are stowed.
  • Permanently installed fuel tanks

This doesn’t include bait wells, glove compartments boats with open slatted flooring. So how many fire extinguishers do you need? The following table will help you determine the minimum number of B-I fire extinguishers you need:

Length of Vessel (feet)NO fixed fire extinguishing system in the machinery spaceFixed fire extinguishing system in the machinery space
Under 1610
Over 16, under 2610
Over 26, under 4021
Over 40, not over 6532

To meet the acceptability requirements fire extinguishers must meet the following:

  • Must be Marine type
  • Must be U.S. Coast Guard approved
  • Must be the correct type
  • Must be in good and serviceable condition
  • Must have a sufficient charge
  • Must have correct number for type and size of vessel

Fire extinguishers should be serviced and recharged or replaced annually or when the indicator shows only a partial charge remains.

Preventing a fire is always preferable to fighting a fire. Keep the bilge and engine area clean. Make sure that all wiring and electrical systems have been properly installed. And use proper refueling technique: extinguish any cigarettes or lighted materials, be sure to keep the hose nozzle in contact with the fill pipe to prevent a spark from static electricity and a possible explosion, and keep a fire extinguisher close at hand. Since fuel vapors are heavier than air, make sure all compartments are well ventilated before starting the engine. If so equipped, run the boat’s blower for at least four minutes after refueling, then give all compartments the “sniff” test before starting the engine.You can learn more about fire safety regulations and fighting specific types of fires on board by taking a Boating Skills and Seamanship Course offered through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Visit the web site at to find one in your area. The bottom line, however, is that your first consideration is to save your passengers and yourself.

putting out a fire
A Coast Guard crew fight a fire that occurred during refueling. Official Coast Guard photo

The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit

Know the Types of Fires…

Fire is composed of heat, fuel and air. Remove any one of those elements and the fire goes out. Before fighting a fire, you need to know what type of fire you’re dealing with, and especially if electricity is involved. There are four types of fire, classified according to their fuel source, and these types can also occur in combination. Fire extinguishers approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for marine use are designated by a letter that corresponds to the class of fire on which it can be used effectively, and a Roman numeral that refers to the relative size of fire the extinguisher and the amount of extinguishing agent it contains. The larger the number, the greater the amount.

Class A: Common combustibles, such as wood, paper, and plastic can be tackled effectively with a cooling agent, such as water. Extinguishing foams and dry chemicals can also be used.

Class B: Flammable liquids or gases – including oil, grease, paint thinner, alcohol, LPG and gasoline. These are spread by water, so use a smothering agent, such as foam, dry chemicals or carbon dioxide (CO2) instead. If the fire is being fed by an open valve or broken fuel line you will need to stop it at the source, if possible. Attempting to put out a fire with an open fuel source risks an explosion; only chance it if you must put it out to reach the shut-off valve or to save a life.

Class C: Electrical equipment, conductors or appliances. Always try to shut off the electricity first to eliminate the source of ignition and the chance of electrical shock. Use only non-conducting fire extinguishing agents, such as CO2 or dry chemicals. Understand that dry chemicals may ruin electronic equipment.

pleasure boat fire
Crewmembers respond to a pleasure boat fire. USCG photo by PA1 Don Wagner

Class D: Combustible metals, such as potassium and sodium and their alloys, magnesium, zinc, zirconium, titanium and aluminum. These burn at a very high temperature and often with a brilliant flame – for example, in marine flares. Do not use water as it can cause the molten metal to splatter, inflicting burns on anyone nearby and possibly spreading the fire. Instead, use a dry powder made especially for this type of fire or, if possible, jettison the burning material overboard.

Combination Class A/B: Use foam and dry chemical agents to extinguish a fire involving both solid materials and flammable liquids as these smother and cool the fire. CO2 is effective in extinguishing a fire in an enclosed space, but use caution as it robs the air of oxygen and can suffocate a person as well.

Combination Class A/C or B/C: Whenever energized electrical equipment is involved, non-conducting extinguishing agents, such dry chemicals and CO2 (in enclosed spaces), are the only choice. REMEMBER: always try to shut off the electricity before fighting a boat fire.

….And What to Do Should One Occur

Fires are often referred to as a boat’s worst enemy, so take extra precautions to prevent fires and know how to extinguish them once they ignite. Remember, the boat can be replaced, you can’t. Boat fires can quickly burn out of control. Be prepared to abandon ship.

FIND the fire and determine its size.

INFORM all passengers, move them away from the fire and get them into their life jackets, prepared to abandon ship.

• Make a distress call to the U.S. Coast Guard and nearby vessels.

RESTRICT the fire

  • Close hatches, ports, etc. to reduce the air supply to the fire.
  • Shut off the power to electrical systems in the affected space.
  • Close off fuel/gas lines and ventilation.
  • Maneuver vessel to put the fire downwind and minimize the wind’s effect in spreading the fire.
  • If fire occurs at the dock, move passengers and any portable fuel tanks ashore.


  • Quickly determine the class of fire, appropriate equipment, extinguishing agent and method of attack.
  • Try to put the fire out with whatever you determine is appropriate – extinguisher, fire blanket, water buckets, etc..
  • Throw burning items over the side.
  • Activate any built-in fire suppression systems, first ensuring that all passengers have been evacuated from the fire area.
  • Once the fire is out, assign someone to watch for re-ignition. Consider using water to cool the fire site once the flames are extinguished.
  • Cancel May Day if assistance is no longer needed.

Warning: If water is used for extinguishing the fire, dewatering procedures should begin at the same time to avoid impairing the vessel’s stability.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit