How do you deal with fires on a cruise ship?

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One of the more common emergencies encountered on a ship is fire. It doesn’t have to be big to warrant raising a full alarm either – a report of smoke or a burning smell is enough to start the first response actions. So how do we detect a fire in the first place, and what do we have to put one out?

Cruise Ship Fire Alarms

Every cruise ship has an electronic fire detection system that communicates with the bridge or a designated ‘safety centre’. Unlike detectors you might buy for at home, this system can be configured to seek smoke, heat, flames and even certain gasses, and give an alarm if any are found. These detectors give an early warning at the very beginning of a fire, but because they are so sensitive, they can also give false alarms.

Cruise ship fire damage.
Fire can be devastating! (businessinsider.com)

To make sure we know what is happening, we investigate every alarm received. This investigation can include the use of CCTV cameras, other detectors in the area, calling crew members or guests in the space or sending a first responder. There is a crew member available 24/7 on the radio, ready to investigate any alarm or emergency situation.This first responder is trained to identify and report on what the situation is, and to take actions until a full emergency response is available.

Responding To A Cruise Ship Fire

In case of an actual fire, the ship itself will take action to put it out! Each space is covered by a sprinkler system, and some spaces have additional protection such as Carbon Dioxide or foam extinguishing systems. Most of these fixed systems in the ship are also available as portable extinguishers – CO2, foam, water and dry chemical powder extinguishers. Crew members throughout the ship are trained to use these extinguishers, and to operate another part of the ship’s protection – our emergency shutdown systems. These systems incorporate fire screen doors throughout the ship, fire dampers in the ventilation systems and shut-offs for fuel or electricity.

Hundreds of Fire Screen Doors are spread throughout a cruise ship, diving it into vertical zones. Each of these zones is protected from the next by a barrier that stops the spread of smoke and fire, and everything including ventilation, electricity, plumbing and the escape routes are designed around these zones. Doors that allow guests and crew to pass between zones are held open by electromagnets, allowing them to be closed remotely from the bridge or safety centre. You’ll see the doors at regular intervals along each corridor, and surrounding staircases and elevators. Each door and fire barrier is designed to withstand a fire for at least 60 minutes, allowing plenty of time to fight the fire or evacuate if it’s required.

Sprinkler Systems

Sprinkler systems can vary from a normal sprinkler head like you might find in a building on land, to a high pressure ‘mist’ sprinkler system (Hi-Fog) installed on newer ships that is even more effective. The older system creates a spray of water that drenches everything in the area. This of course will put out a fire, but usually has the disadvantage of destroying anything affected! By contrast, the newer ‘mist’ systems use a much higher pressure up to 150 bar, creating much smaller water droplets that can penetrate around and under furniture, and smother a fire rather than drench it. Because it is so effective, it uses less water and creates less damage to furniture etc. Following the release of a sprinkler system, it is usually quite easy to return the area to service – depending on the clean-up required of course!

In addition to these sprinkler systems, some spaces will have Carbon Dioxide (CO2) protection. These spaces may include the ventilation ducts from the galley areas, and engine room spaces. CO2 works by replacing the oxygen in the area, suffocating the fire. Unfortunately this means it will also suffocate any people in the area too. Because of this danger, releasing CO2 into a space will only be done with the Captain’s permission, and only after a full evacuation has been confirmed. Because we need to stop oxygen reaching the hot area where the fire was, a space filled with CO2 will sometimes need to be left closed up for days to cool off. This will likely affect the ship’s sailing schedule!

Foam extinguishing systems may be found in galley areas particularly for hot plates or deep fat fryers, where oil and grease may make water extinguishing methods dangerous. They might also be installed in engine room spaces to provide protection from larger oil or fuel fires. Foam works by floating on top of the oil or fuel, creating a barrier between the fuel and the flames and air above it. There can be automatic or manual release systems, and will take a lot of work to clean up if they’re released.

Cruise Ship Fire Fighters

Crew fighting fire.
Crew taking part in firefighter training at Auckland International Airport, NZ.

The final pieces in the puzzle are the Fire or Emergency Response Teams. These teams are made up of crew members that have received training as firefighters. While they may have many different jobs around the ship from engine room personnel to being carpenters or upholsterers, in an emergency they have one focus – to make sure everyone escapes the fire to safety, and then to put it out! Their equipment is very similar to firefighters ashore, from a full protective suit and breathing apparatus, to fire hoses, axes and hydraulic ‘jaws of life’. In many cases, the ship’s firefighting systems are so effective that the teams only need to verify that the fire is out, but they are drilled weekly to make sure their skills are honed should they ever be needed.

What can you do to keep everyone safe?

  • Be very careful with smoking! A cigarette butt or hot ashes can blow around, and have caused fires in the past. Remember that your balcony is one of many, with other guests above, below and beside you.
  • Keep an eye on devices when you charge them – we have seen recently that phone and tablet batteries can overheat.
  • That fragile glass bulb in the sprinkler is designed to break easily with an increase in temperature, and if you hang anything from the sprinkler it will break too, flooding your cabin.
  • Tell a crew member if you see or smell anything suspicious. We would rather investigate 100 false alarms than miss one real fire. On most ships dialling 911 will still connect you to a crew member who can respond to your report.

Finally, be a responsible guest and make sure you attend the Passenger Emergency Muster Drill, pay close attention to any announcements made, and look through the safety information in your cabin so you can help keep yourself and others safe. Crew members are well trained and attend regular drills so they know how to respond in an emergency, and you should too!

Tell your cruise ship story, or ask more questions at CrewsShip.com on Facebook!

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