Seventeen sailors and four civilians are being treated for injuries after a fire and explosion Sunday aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a US Navy warship that was docked in San Diego. While investigators are still working to determine the cause of the blaze, experts have already made note of the challenges firefighters faced in fighting the flames—a point that was emphasized in the September/October 2019 NFPA Journal cover story, "Close Quarters."
Fires on large marine vessels "are not like a house fire," retired Navy commander Erik A. Dukat told the New York Times. "Imagine a fire inside of a ship, just imagine the inside of your oven," Dukat told the paper. "Where the problem really comes, where a ship is lost for good, is normally actually because of the water," added John Liddle, a lieutenant commander who retired from the Navy last year. "You're putting so much water into it in one place or another that all of a sudden it's not buoyant in the same way that it was designed to be."
The incredible heat that can be generated from a fire raging within a ship's hull as well as the risk of pouring too much water on a ship fire were both discussed in the NFPA Journal piece. It's factors like these that make fires on large marine vessels one of the most universally feared calls for firefighters to receive.
"The way ships are constructed present huge challenges, the way it traps heat and affects fire growth," Forest Herndon, a 37-year veteran of the marine firefighting industry, says in the Journal article. "Firefighters could be ascending steep, slippery ladders or trying to walk on decks that heat up to the point where their feet are burning. Shipboard fires burn a lot hotter than fires in land-based structures, and you don't have the ability to ventilate these fires, so your methods of addressing them have to change."
The challenges of shipboard firefighting and the prevention of fires on ships, in shipyards, and in marine terminals are the subject of several NFPA documents and NFPA training and certification programs:
NFPA 306, Standard for the Control of Gas Hazards on Vessels, provides requirements for determining that an area is safe for entry or work activities such as hot work. NFPA 306 applies to vessels that use as fuel or carry flammable or combustible liquids, flammable compressed gases, flammable cryogenic liquids, chemicals in bulk, or other products capable of creating a hazardous condition.
NFPA 312, Standard for Fire Protection of Vessels During Construction, Conversion, Repair, and Lay-Up, applies to vessels during construction, conversion, repairs, or while laid-up, and provides requirements necessary to prevent fires or limit a fire's spread.
NFPA 307, Standard for Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals, Piers, and Wharves, provides general principles for the construction and fire protection of marine terminals, piers, and wharves. The 2021 edition includes a new annex to inform municipal and industrial firefighters about marine firefighting requirements that vessel owners or operators must meet in their respective vessel response plans.
NFPA 1005, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Marine Firefighting for Land-Based Firefighters, identifies the minimum job performance requirements for marine firefighting for land-based firefighters, while NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, identifies the elements of a comprehensive marine firefighting response program, such as vessel familiarization, training considerations, pre-fire planning, and special hazards that enable land-based fire fighters to extinguish vessel fires safely and efficiently.
Historically, ship fires are also some of the most deadly incidents. Nearly one-fifth of the 21 deadliest fires or explosions in world history have occurred on boats. Watch the video below to learn more about the four deadliest ship fires or explosions in history.