It may seem an oxymoron that a fire can be a catastrophic event for a marina, yacht club, or boatyard, surrounded by water. Yet, the danger of a devastating blaze is all too real. No marine business is immune to the risk of fire. The key is to implement the necessary fire mitigation strategies, fire response plans, and training programs. You want your team ready to respond, so they can prevent a small fire from becoming a five-alarm disaster.
While fire claims aren’t the most frequent type of claim, they are among the most devastating and costly. In an analysis of 10 years of claims data from 1,300 yacht clubs and sailing organizations, fire claims ranked fifth in severity (total loss dollars), behind storms, boat liability claims, trips and falls, and injury from trespassing.
Behind the numbers are the tragic stories of the impact of these fires on businesses and boat owners, firefighters, and communities. Here are some recent headlines:
Preventing marine fires will save lives, property, and loss of community trust. When fires do occur, being prepared with a trained staff, response plan, and firefighting resources is the best offense to reduce the risk of spread and minimize potential damage.
Marine Industry Fires: Causes and Prevention
When considering all the possible ways fires could start at yacht clubs, boatyards, and marinas, there are a plethora of potential failure points. Furthermore, fires can spread quickly from one source to another, resulting in a small manageable fire becoming a five-alarm community disaster. Here are 10 of the most common causes of marine industry fires, along with precautions boatyards and marinas can take to prevent them.
1. Electrical work not up to code
- Ensure electricians working onsite know and follow the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC)’s electrical codes and guidelines for dock power and lighting safety.
- Follow the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations for wiring.
- Conduct regular electrical inspections, at least annually, to stay on top of any emerging problems.
2. Improper flammables storage
- Store flammables in approved containers and keep these materials in “Flammable Cabinets” designed for safe storage.
- Make sure employees always keep these cabinets closed (or consider ones with self-closing doors).
- Use only metal trash containers to better contain a fire should one start. Empty these trash containers at the end of every day.
3. Dock boxes (aka “Pandora’s Box”) with mystery flammable contents
- Boat owners often store the stinky, dirty (and flammable) stuff they do not want on their boats in their dock boxes. Boat owners need education on what is flammable and instruction that these materials are not allowed in personal or community dock boxes.
- Add language to dockage agreements prohibiting the storage of flammables in dock boxes.
4. Batteries on boats, in equipment, and/or in charging areas
5. Makeshift and unprotected spray booths
- Follow NFPA regulations for spray booth construction and operation.
- Ensure the spray booth room is explosion-proof.
6. Fuels and gases stored in plastic containers in unmarked storage areas
- Store outdoors in approved containers only.
- Give fuels and gases proper signage — not just for employees and boat owners, but for responding firefighters to quickly assess where to focus.
- Store fuels and gases 25+ feet from property lines and protect them from traffic.
- Require boat owners to keep fuel and gas out of dock boxes.
7. Welding, brazing, cutting, or soldering near combustibles
- Follow OSHA and the NFPA well-defined rules for welding practices.
- Obtain town or state certification, if required, for welding operations.
- Keep combustibles at least 35 feet away from welding operations.
- Use noncombustible tarps to separate or cover combustibles that cannot be removed from the area.
- Engage a trained fire watch employee to observe the welding.
8. Difficult access and lack of suppression materials, especially on docks
- Fires spread very quickly from one boat to the next, due to close proximity. Wind accelerates the spread.
- Covered docks and shed fires have been among the deadliest marina fires.
- Know and implement the required NFPA 1 National Fire Protection Association – Fire Code) & NFPA 303 (National Fire Protection Association – Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards) for your location.
- Most docks require a fire extinguisher within 75 feet in any one direction.
- Fuel docks need fire extinguishers designed for extra (high) hazards installed on either side of the fueling area and/or pumps.
- Buildings with indoor rack storage should have automatic fire sprinkler systems (see state fire codes) and access to approved fire suppression water supplies.
- Wet-slips and wet-storage locations need access to fire suppression systems with a planned process for moving boats and yachts out of harm’s way.
9. Untrained seasonal employees
- Make sure seasonal employees engaged in fueling know the emergency procedures and where the shut offs are located.
- Host spill training sessions for fuel dock employees each season.
- Create interactive training sessions and incorporate training opportunities into job duties. Involve staff in safety audits to help spot and discuss safety hazards, particularly flammables.
- Run emergency response and evacuation safety drills. Provide documented details on who to alert/contact (fire, police, owners), safe meeting places, paths to take to safety, and communication plans (who can speak to press, chain of command, etc.).
- Help employees understand the “WHYs” of fire safety and workplace safety. Understanding is key to prevention and smart actions.
10. Lack of boat owner safety awareness
- Hold a boat owner safety day. Invite the harbormaster, fire department, and a fire extinguisher company to educate owners on marine safety equipment, personal flotation devices, how to use fire extinguishers, and more.
- Host a CPR & First Aid class for your customers to promote safety.
- Display signage with safety rules throughout the site.
Foster a Culture of Marine Fire Safety
Everyone benefits from more training. Local fire departments are an incredible safety resource for boatyard and marina owners, and for yacht clubs too. Invite them for an in-depth facilities tour. Ask if they can conduct an audit and help update the location’s safety programs. Be honest and transparent — fire fighters will risk their lives to save a marina or boatyard property and protect the surrounding community. Giving them complete access allows them to recommend changes that can prevent the fires from starting.
Act now – prevention is key
Spend the time to implement the fire prevention precautions outlined across the 10 categories. These commonsense fire safety protocols will reduce the likelihood of a severe fire, and keep property, employees, and communities safe.
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About the author
A specialist advisor to the marine industry and OSHA authorized instructor, Kellie Crete has more than 30 years of experience in safety and loss control. She works with marinas, boatyards, yacht clubs, and other marine businesses on fire safety and prevention, risk management strategies, and customized training programs.