Why are we still depending on portable fire extinguishers?

Workboats are vessels used for commercial purposes, i.e.., they perform some form of “work.” This includes a large portion of the maritime community and can range from commercial fishing vessels to the large supply vessels that serve the offshore oil and gas industry. Work boats are to navigable waterways what commercial vehicles are to the highways. They do it all and they come in an almost endless array of sizes and configurations.

What is universal is that workboats require fire protection. But what is not as clear cut is the type of fire protection they require. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the American Boating and Yacht Council (ABYC) each provide standards relating to the requirements for onboard fire protection. Both organizations spend quite a bit of space within the standards defining how many and what types of portable fire extinguishers must be onboard along with where they should be mounted.

To be clear, portable fire extinguishers are indeed an invaluable tool for suppressing fires, especially when the fires are small or incipient; and they are required to pass a USCG inspection. But when it comes to protecting machinery spaces—e.g., the engine room—unless mariners are present when the fire starts and are trained, can find and are able to use fire extinguishers, the fire will rapidly progress past the incipient phase rendering them ineffective.

Extinguishing an entrenched fire in the engine room requires either a fixed system or advanced firefighting measures, i.e., fire hoses equipped with firefighting foam manned by personnel wearing PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus. For a vessel that has been depending on portable fire extinguishers to protect their machinery spaces, it is unlikely that either system will be present in these critical areas.

The USCG and ABYC devote considerable space to portable fire extinguisher requirements in their respective standards. This is due to the fact that portable fire extinguishers are effective when used appropriately and relatively affordable. Historically, fixed systems have been viewed by boat owners as too costly to install and expensive to test and maintain—and they were correct. Legacy fire suppression systems—such as clean agents, CO2, and water mist systems—can all carry a large price tag to install and maintain. So, up to a certain vessel size or use, operators perceive that they must use portable and/or semi-portable fire extinguishers in lieu of a fixed system, to reduce costs.

Title 46 CFR Chapter I Subchapter C Part 25 Subpart 25.30 provides the USCG requirements for fire protection. In addition to fire extinguishers, the standard makes the following requirements for machinery space fire protection:

(i) One Type 20–B portable fire extinguisher must be carried for each 1,000 B. H. P. of the main engines or fraction thereof. However, not more than 6 such extinguishers need be carried.

(ii) On motor vessels of over 300 gross tons, either one 160–B semi-portable fire extinguishing system must be fitted, or alternatively, a fixed fire extinguishing system must be fitted in the machinery space.

Therefore, based on these USCG requirements, a vessel must exceed 300 gross tons before a semi-portable or fixed fire protection system must be provided. For non-mariners, a 300-ton vessel is considered a “seagoing motor vessel” by the USCG and thus subject to their inspection guidelines. Put simply, it is a big boat.

In the ABYC standards, for gasoline-powered boats the requirements for a fixed system in the engine room are based on the location of the engine room, and on the size of the engine room for vessels with diesel engines:

The “fire port” referred to in the standard is an opening external to the engine compartment through which a fire extinguisher can be discharged into the space without the need for opening the engine compartment. The standard is clear that this extinguisher cannot be of the dry chemical type.

Until recently, providing the marine industry with these “fixed-system workarounds” has been a necessity because of the expense of installing a fixed system. Whether the vessel owner chose a clean agent, CO2, or a water-based fire suppression system, one thing was for sure: they were going to make a significant capital outlay.

Part of the reason for the significant expense is that all these systems require considerable piping to deliver the agent from its source to the machinery space(s). Clean agents and CO2 also require banks of agent which take up valuable real estate onboard the vessel. Water-based systems require a pump and its control mechanism. And all these systems require regular inspection, maintenance, and testing according to rigid standards.

When the whole is considered, they are all expensive. So, the choice until now has been A) spend a lot of money for a fixed system; or B) install a bunch of portable fire extinguishers and hope they get the job done.

As the saying goes, “Times, they are a changing.” Now workboat operators have a third, and even better, choice that makes installing a fixed system a viable option on all vessels, even when not required by USCG or ABYC standards. The solution is Stat-X®, an innovative fire suppression system that is tailor-made for suppressing fires in enclosed spaces such as engine rooms and other machinery compartments.

Stat-X® is USCG approved and represents a departure from the legacy fixed systems. In addition to performing exceptionally on machinery-space fires, Stat-X has other advantages that work boat operators are finding irresistible—it is dramatically less expensive to install and maintain, and it has none of the environmental and health hazards that are adversely affecting several fire suppression agents on the market.

The primary reason Stat-X is economical to install is that it is supplied in individual units which can operate in a standalone capacity, or, they can be linked together to form a system. Because the discharge units are individual, there is no piping, no centralized storage of the agent, and no extensive testing and maintenance requirements. As a matter of fact, the units have a 15-year service life and are virtually maintenance free.

Stat-X units can be operated in several ways. A single unit or multiple units can be manually operated with a cable pull system or, a thermally activated unit with a patented heat responsive element can be specified to discharge at a preset temperature in a total-flooding manner. This versatility allows a Stat-X system to be tailored to the size of the machinery space, be it for a single-unit installation on small vessels to multi-unit systems for the largest vessels plying the ocean.

In addition to their compact design and superior performance, Stat-X provides regulatory certainty in that users will not be faced with costly system replacement down the road because it has been found to be damaging to the environment or harmful to personnel. This is a problem facing several clean agents and firefighting foams at this very moment. The global regulatory landscape for fire protection agents is rapidly evolving. Most chemical-based agents (including HFC’s and PFAS-based) are facing some form of restriction or regulation.

The ability of the Stat-X system to operate automatically is perhaps the greatest benefit to workboat operators as compared to portable fire extinguishers. The biggest drawback to portable fire extinguishers (or any form of manual fire suppression, for that matter) is that they require human intervention. Someone must discover the fire, locate an operable fire extinguisher, approach the fire, and then effectively use it to have success. If any one of these steps is not successfully executed, the fire will not be extinguished. With a vessel at sea, this can spell disaster. But with Stat-X, it does not have to be this way.

Do not let your workboat go under-protected by relying on a menagerie of portable fire extinguishers and fire ports. Instead, provide positive fire protection for your vessel and crew with Stat-X. USCG-approved Stat-X provides superior fire protection without the infrastructure of legacy fire suppression systems, resulting in far less expense to install and maintain. Additionally, Stat-X has zero environmental and public health downside. Whereas many boat owners in the past struggled to meet the expense of clean agents and mist systems, now reliable, affordable, and sustainable fire protection is within your reach, with Stat-X.

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