Latest training melds new technology, proven tactics in fight against fire

Seemingly out of nowhere, word spread of a fire in the galley and a missing crewmember. A firefighting team wearing turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus mobilized quickly and stepped into the dark, smoky space.

Before reaching the flames, the responders found what appeared to be an unconscious crewmember on the floor. The hose team briefly split in two. Half carried the wounded person to safety while the others advanced toward the fire.

The firefighters shouted back and forth, relaying information as they attacked the flames coming from a vent above the stove. The fire receded or grew depending on their technique. Eventually, their efforts paid off.

“Fire’s out!” one firefighter shouted.

“Fire’s out!” another firefighter echoed as word moved to the rest of the hose team.

This training scenario played out repeatedly on a February afternoon at the multilevel firefighting facility operated by the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS) north of downtown Seattle. Propane gas fed real flames coming from the replica galley, and smoke machines created a haze within the small room. Veteran firefighters moved with the trainees every step of the way, providing tips and guidance as they fought the flames in a controlled environment.

Randy Hyde, a retired federal fire service captain who served for many years at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, said the basic firefighting course has a few key objectives. Instilling confidence is a big one. Getting acclimated to fire, and the equipment needed to adequately respond to a fire, is another.

“I want them to learn tactics, and that is basically what we are teaching them in this scenario,” Hyde said. “How to be a member of a hose team and learn those different hose tactics, and that is what the Coast Guard wants for competency.”

A fire is one of the most severe emergencies a mariner will ever encounter. Flames can rapidly spread, and toxic smoke can overwhelm a wheelhouse crew within seconds. Fires in confined spaces are challenging to extinguish, and they put the entire vessel, its crew and cargo at risk.

Students enrolled in a Compass Courses basic fire training program prepare to enter MITAGS’ fire training facility in Seattle. Compass hires MITAGS for its live-fire training.

Casey Conley photo

Despite steady overall improvements in maritime safety, several high-profile fires in recent years have caused the entire industry to take notice. These include cargo fires aboard foreign-flagged containerships, the Sincerity Ace fire in the North Pacific Ocean in early 2019, and the Conception dive boat fire last fall. Five mariners aboard Sincerity Ace died, and 34 people died aboard Conception.

Fires on towboats operating on inland waterways occur with some regularity. Within a month in early 2018, engine room fires aboard George King and Leland Speakes spread throughout the vessels, effectively gutting them. In September 2018, Jacob Kyle Rusthoven was destroyed by fire while underway on the Lower Mississippi River.

In each case, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators identified challenges associated with fighting fires aboard towboats. The lack of firefighting gear on many of these vessels — it is not required by the Coast Guard — limits what crews can reasonably do to combat the flames.

“The small confines of the engine room and the location of firefighting equipment inside that space demonstrate a risk to crews fighting engine room fires,” the NTSB said in its report on the Leland Speakes fire, in which mariners were hindered by an inoperable fire pump in the room. “Had the fire pump operated, the sole means to try to control and extinguish the fire would have been to place hoses through an engine room door or window.”

The report noted that these limitations are a key reason for fixed fire suppression systems and other “means for shutting down ventilation to the engine room.” But these tactics require crew to be familiar with them and know how to use them during moments of extreme stress. Aboard Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, for instance, the NTSB determined that “lack of crew measures to activate the engine fuel supply shutoffs and secure open doors ventilating the engine room” contributed to the severity of the fire.

Maritime academies and training centers generally offer two types of firefighting courses: basic and advanced. Basic firefighting courses typically last a couple of days and split time between the classroom and the field. Most centers tailor their programs to meet Coast Guard or International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirements. Current regulations do not require most mariners who operate within harbors or inland waterways to have firefighting training.

In practice, basic firefighting courses provide an understanding of sources of ignition, a primer on how fires spread, and explanations of firefighting and rescue tactics. Students also learn how to don protective clothing, including self-contained breathing apparatus, and work as a team to fight fires. Most programs also offer potentially life-saving tips on fire prevention.

Advanced firefighting courses typically last four or five days and build upon what mariners learned in basic courses. Masters, mates and engineers who possess a basic grasp of firefighting take advanced training to learn command and control tactics during a fire emergency. The training acknowledges these crewmembers likely won’t be holding hoses during an emergency.

XVR software allows the Delgado Maritime and Industrial Training Center to simulate a specific port, refinery or ship for response training based on the customer’s needs.

Courtesy XVR Simulation

Capt. Jon Kjaerulff, who formerly ran Fremont Maritime Services and now works in business development for MITAGS, said advanced training primarily focuses on tactics, hazardous materials, effects of firefighting on vessel stability, and equipment maintenance. The program also emphasizes running effective fire drills for crew.

“The people fighting the fire depend on their officers to make sure they have water to their hose, that the equipment they are using is in good order, and there is a reserve of people backing them up as far as tending hose, setting boundaries, isolating fuel and electrical systems, and preserving their exit if the fire attack is unsuccessful,” Kjaerulff said.

Delgado Community College in New Orleans recently introduced a new way to obtain advanced firefighting credentials. In addition to live firefighting, the school now offers a virtual-reality simulator course intended to mirror the stressful, ever-changing environment that masters and supervisors might experience during a fire. About 100 people have completed advanced training using the simulator program, which received Coast Guard approval last fall. Delgado also offers a lectured class that incorporates a virtual-reality component to simulate real-life exercises.

Trainees using the simulator see the action unfolding in front of them. They can walk around and respond to sounds as the event takes shape. “We give you basically everything but the smell,” Albert Faciane, a New Orleans fire chief and Delgado instructor, said of the program.

“Alarms are going off, you’ll see smoke and hear a report of a fire in a certain part of the vessel,” Faciane said. “That student has to implement the fire control plan and develop a strategy for fighting the fire, as well as (show) the ability to accurately account for personnel in the fire.”

The scope of the emergency changes, in real time, based on how the student responds to different scenarios. Failure to communicate or failure to activate the general alarm can make a bad situation worse.

“Simply put, we can constantly keep changing the environment. Fires get larger or smaller, vessels can sink or take on water,” Faciane said. “Mostly what we can do is add stress to see how you follow or adapt the plan to whatever the most reasonable end would be.”

Faciane and Rick Schwab, senior director of Delgado’s Maritime and Industrial Training Center, said the school’s XVR software can be tailored to create a specific port, refinery or ship depending on the customer’s needs or interests. The course assesses command and control skills and challenges students to manage real-life situations.

This type of technology, which closely mirrors wheelhouse simulators, can itself create anxiety among mariners. Delgado addresses that by introducing it in small steps. Students spend time observing the system before anyone steps into the simulator. Instructors also stress that the students themselves have the tools to effectively control the situation if they follow the training.

At MITAGS, veteran firefighters guide students through the live-fire training program every step of the way. Kirkland (Wash.) Fire Capt. Kyle Higgins, standing at right, answers questions before the rollover demonstration begins.

Casey Conley photo

The same premise exists in the basic firefighting program offered by MITAGS in Seattle, albeit in a different setting and environment. Students are already mustered and in turnout gear when they hear an alarm indicating a grease fire in the galley, with one crewmember missing. Although they know these details ahead of time, how the students react and the techniques they use influence how soon the fire is extinguished.

During the training session in February, teams of four and five students enrolled at Compass Courses, which uses the MITAGS facility for live-fire exercises, gathered outside the training “ship” awaiting the alarm. Jim Whitsett, a firefighter with the Poulsbo (Wash.) Fire Department, controlled the flames from a vantage point that offered a clear view into the “galley.” Crew began entering the smoky room when they literally stumbled onto “Bob,” a rescue dummy made from old fire hoses.

Kirkland Fire Capt. Kyle Higgins critiqued the students from inside the ship as they fought the flames. Whitsett offered occasional suggestions from outside, encouraging the students to stay low beneath the smoke. Each team approached the flames differently, with different levels of teamwork and communication.

“One thing we like to hear is the teamwork, the yelling back and forth,” Whitsett said. “This is really about communication and teamwork.”

It’s also about understanding how fire behaves. The grease fire scenario required a specific spray technique, sweeping from bulkhead to bulkhead along the galley floor. As the students approached the flames, their training called for them to aim down onto the fire rather than upward.

What might seem like a minor detail is a critical part of the fire response. The upward force of pressurized water can agitate hot, combustible gases along the ceiling that can cause a fire to behave erratically, Whitsett explained.

Taken together, classroom instruction and experiences in the field are intended to give students what Hyde called “a strategic mental model” for responding to a stressful, confusing and scary situation.

“There is a lot of apprehension when we have people who are doing this for the first time. You can see it in their eyes,” he said. “Confidence gives you the capability to settle yourself down. If you are confident in your capabilities, you are going to be an active, competent member of that hose team.”

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