12 Tips to dramatically improve your Fire Drills


The Saturday-evening-call for Fire drills: something all of us, or at least most of us, have been associated with.

Well, there are various ways to carry them out. Paperwork, eyewash, intermediate and PSC standards!

During my eight years in command, and in carrying out numerous fire drills, I have come to notice a trend of errors that occur almost on every vessel, by and large. A few changes here and there can massively improve on the standards, and it is essential knowledge for any sailing Master today.

The Tiger I once sailed with

“Stop!! Recall!!”

I hated those words!

It was 2005. I was a junior officer back then, sailing with one of the most knowledgeable and thorough Masters I have ever sailed with. He was not subtle, though. He was a terror on normal days, to say the least, and on the Saturday afternoons, he was a Monster! As we geared up for the weekly Fire Drills, we just hoped we could complete the drill in one shot.

One misstep, a wrong communication, or a slight delay in preparing for the boundary cooling, and we would all hear those words on the radio:

“Stop!! Recall!”

That essentially meant that we were to now re-assemble and start the exercise once again, as Captain stood on the Bridge wing with (…..what we imagined) a slight grin on his face.

Acing the Fire Drills

As weeks went by, eventually the recalls reduced and we started making fewer mistakes. We were becoming better at it. The recalls which kept coming up were becoming frustrating, though.

Well, one day, it all made sense – on the one day when things went wrong.

One of the largest Engine room fires in my career, which could have taken down the ship, was averted.  We behaved like professional firefighters, with flawless response and communication skills. The fire spotted within a minute of the flames blazing up, our response started within the first three minutes and it was under control with impeccable actions by every crew member.

Fire Drills on board ships

The legacy of a Master

We learnt two valuable lessons that day.

One – For better or worse, you usually don’t forget the people who affect your life.

Two – Fire Drills can be a waste of time if you do not pay attention. If the team leaders lack motivation and imagination of how things can go wrong on the day when they will, the fire drills will leave numerous loopholes and become a paper exercise only.

Every Master carries his legacy, and it gets reflected in the people you sail with. This is the purest form of maritime training. Perhaps if we track down the source of most skills that we have learnt, it will reach the Maritime training carried out by someone we have sailed with.

Before I founded the Navguide solutions, I have spent my sailing years with a lot of pride.

As a Master, as a person to carry on the legacy of the “Grin on the Bridge wing”, here’s my take on the simple improvements, mostly training needs, which can enormously improve the performance of Fire Drills on board.

For better or worse, you usually don’t forget the people that affect your life.

Twelve Most Common errors during Fire Drills

1. Improper Communication

This is the most common and important issue which comes up. You simply cannot hear what the Fire party is saying.

This can be either a training issue or an equipment malfunction. Check if the Fire-party can communicate with the team leader(s) relatively clearly from a noisy place such as the Engine room or the Pumproom, even when they are tired. Confirm the communication equipment is in order, and if required replace or repair.

Ensure they know how to speak clearly and effectively. Often, shouting does not help. It is brief, clear words that we are looking for. There may also be, at times, too much communication, which can give rise to more confusion than clarity. Remember the KISS Principle – Keep it Short and Sweet.

Often, shouting does not help. It is brief, clear words that we are looking for.

2. Time of response for the First attack party

Fire extinguishers
Fire extinguishers

Four minutes!!

Going by personal experience, if a Fire is not tackled within the first four minutes, it can spiral out of hand rapidly. The first party must ideally enter in the first three to four minutes, especially if the fire is in the accommodation or Engine room.

That must not involve running or undue haste. The breakup should be: 0.5 mins to reach the Fire station. 1.5 -2 mins to wear the Fireman’s outfit, 0.5 mins to reach the site entrance ready to enter.

3. Bottle pressures not checked before entry

The team leaders often miss out on reporting or checking the bottle pressure before entering a space containing a fire. This can be a fatal flaw. Bottle pressures must be checked and reported by the team leader before the Fire-Party enters a secluded zone.

They must be charged to at least 90 percent of the maximum rated bottle pressure.

You cannot hold your breath in a fire unless you are David Blaine!!

4. Improper opening of doors

Feel it and then open it.

The doors must be felt by the back of bare hands first before opening them slowly. If the doors are opened abruptly, the flashback may cause the fire to spread.

5. Boundary cooling not reported

Ensure this is carried out from all sides and reported back to the command centre (Bridge).

Even if it is being carried out, the Bridge (command center) must be aware of it.

6. First aid squad not reported as present

I often find the first aid squad standing in one corner with no one to care for them!

The Emergency party gets busy with their actions and so does the Support Squad.

The First aid squad is often left like a helpless child standing in the centre of the action not knowing what to do. Ensure they are reported as present, and they bring extra blankets, provision and Resuscitation equipment.

7.Handing over from C/Off to 2/Eng not clear during E/Room Fire drills

During Engine room fire drills, the Chief officer usually hands over to the Second Engineer. One of the most common glitches happen here. Very often, there is no handover actually carried out.

This handover of responsibility must be clear and precise in case of E/Room fire. After the handover, the Chief officer can act as a backup supporting the 2nd Engineer.

8. Hotspot checks not assigned to anyone

There must be people checking for hotspots around the fire zone and there must be a clear means of reporting back whether the surrounding temperature is increasing. This reporting is often missed out.

9. Spare BA Bottles are not available at location

Ever seen the Pit-crew changing tyres on a Formula 1 Racetrack?

That’s about how much time you would have in a real fire!

Ensure spare bottles are brought and kept next to the entrance, and the people are trained in changing the bottle quickly and perfectly.

10. People passing right through fire zone in Fire drills

Actions during a drill must not be a stroll in the park.

Even though you do not actually light a fire (that would be too much!!), you need to be imaginative about what the scenario could look like. A US Coast Guard inspector failed a ship while simulating a Mast riser fire because the team leader in regular clothes passed right through the zone where the fire was supposed to be. Your lack of imagination is never an excuse.

Look at this picture for example. The person overseeing the fire does not have any safety precautions, and neither is the woman fighting the fire wearing her PPE. How do you think such a drill rate during a Port State inspection?

11. Fire man’s outfit not properly donned

It’s not just the SCBA and the Fireman’s suit!

The outfit includes a Fire axe; flashlight, etc and these can be invaluable during entry into the Engine room for example in a real scenario. Also, I have seen some people wearing the outfit without the straps and belts, much like a Cowboy in an Old-Wild-West movie!! That’s not how you wear it.

12. Emergency fire pump not started or Attack party not carrying charged Fire hoses

If we strictly go by SOLAS, the fire pump must be running and the hoses should be charged during Fire drills.

When you are preparing for a real scenario the charged hose may be far more difficult to carry. This is what the training is for.

Fire drills are for the real day!

That one day when things go wrong – is what we sweat for.

If you can find a way to improve on the above skills on board during drills, you will really be preparing your people for the real scenario. After that, passing through any audit or coast guard inspection will just be a by-product. The implementation, however, is a matter of management and everyone has their own way.

It does not have to be by the edge of the sword or too polite. Perhaps a middle ground is the best way to go.

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