I will begin with something positive – that is, boat fires seldom happen. According to figures examining boat accidents that involve fire and explosions, on average, only two marine vessels out of a pool of one million are damaged by fire related problems or explosions.
Now comes the not so encouraging news; when fire strikes, they are often devastating. The situation is especially true for vessels that travel far offshore, where help can never be extended soon enough. It may be easy to suggest one just jump overboard and swim to safety. This argument is not without its merit if a boat catches on fire in a small lake, but if one is thousands of miles away from land, survival is surely at risk when the vessel is on fire.
Obviously due to the danger posed by possible fire on-board, the onus is on both the boat builder and the boat owner to ensure the marine vessel is fire safe. These marine vessels must be built with fire detection, prevention and suppression in mind. While on the side of the owners, they will need to stay vigilant on all potential threats, and where necessary, take pre-emptive measures on their part to further compliment the security implemented by the builders. This includes, for example, ensuring adequate fire retardant capability on the marine vessel in general, and further strengthening the fire retardant capability by procuring and installing fire safety treated products.
Due to the increased public awareness on fire safety, engineers now have an added responsibility. They are not just tasked to compute how much fuel is necessary to turn the propellers, make sure electricity flows smoothly everywhere and all day and night, and ensure appliances deliver the desired comfort; but also to undertake to minimize the chance for a new marine vessel to catch on fire.
It is no easy task. We know fuel is a main source of combustion, engines invariably cause heat, and electricity would generate sparks. However, all these represent the bare necessity of any marine vessel. Engineers are required to make the boat move, to supply electricity that powers the utilities on board. And to add to this complication, we have a mesh of wires running throughout the boat, typically made of copper, a super efficient conductor of fire.
Due to the inherent risks to maneuver a boat into open waters or to dock at a port, industry regulators worldwide have published stringent guidelines on the optimal and safe way to operate a boat and fixing its internal fixtures, from necessary cooling to draw heat out of the engine room, to proper insulation of wirings all through the vessel.
On the owner side, a good starting point would be to have the marine vessel covered with some insurance policy. For more pro-active measures, scrutinize the work of the builder to ensure that adequate fire protection has been adhered to. In addition, it would be wise for owners to treat all new materials to be brought on-board with fire retardant coating, so that they would not inadvertently introduce new fire hazard factors onto their boats.