A Need For Better Marine Fire Training

Although the Santa Cruz/Conception boat fire event likely progressed more rapidly than could have been mitigated due to a host of facts, this tragedy serves as a clarion call to governmental leaders for enhancements to the fire defensive posture by local/state government in California and State Fire Training/State Fire Marshal to develop a modern training curriculum for marine firefighting. This could be used as a platform for agencies tasked with legitimate jurisdictional authority for marine firefighting duties to begin to deploy adequate and capable resources needed for vessel fires so as to properly protect human life.

There are many governmental agencies that may hold authority regarding the design and standards of fire prevention relative to vessel construction. Any enhancements to the fire prevention leg of the protection of human life on the water is not likely to be realized in the near term. Recognize that a vessel inherently contains many of the firefighting challenges found on land, but all in the same space. A combustible building construction, confined space hazards, redundant electrical systems and filled with combustible and flammable liquids further complicate the firefighting operations challenge. When combined with high occupancy, limited routes of egress and no early warning audible alert the potential for disaster increases. 

The development of a standardized curriculum for marine firefighting in California is another critical leg in any plan to protect the public from the negative consequences of fire in a vessel on the water. The problem is that currently there is no curriculum developed or approved by California State Fire Training (SFT) for marine firefighting. However, a substandard curriculum was developed for marine firefighting by the California Department of Boating & Waterways, since relegated to a division of a parks agency, for this mission. The issue is that the aforementioned curriculum was designed by non-firefighters and is taught by persons unlikely to have experience in the subject.  Finally, under the Injury, Illness & Prevention program regarding training for employees involved in dangerous aspects of job tasks, there is a gap in what training is available in marine firefighting for any employee involved in such a practice.

Throughout the State of California there are a number of natural and man-made environments where large bodies of water meet the land and provide an opportunity for the harboring of a vessel on the water. This water environment becomes a more challenging firefighting activity when the structure is a vessel in water and not accessible to land based firefighters. This challenge is further complicated by the confluence of hazards contained in a vessel as well as boarding and the movement of waterborne craft in open water.  Other issues involve certifications from agencies outside of the fire service in the operation of a vessel, authority, jurisdiction and radio/communication issues.  The lack of a combined arms approach of law, fire, lifeguard add to the challenge.

The recent Santa Cruz/Conception dive boat fire/mass casualty incident speaks to the potential for known hazards found on board a vessel on the water. While this disaster was likely beyond what even a nearby fireboat could have mitigated a similar situation could be predicted near shore where an aggressive interior fire attack would be necessary for a favorable outcome.