I admire those fire departments that cover an ocean front, harbor or port because they know that marine firefighting has a completely different set of tactics than structural firefighting. As I've been told by several marine-firefighting officers, the first rule to remember is that for every gallon of water used on a shipboard fire, a gallon of water also has to be pumped off. Failure to do so may successfully extinguish the fire, but also may subsequently sink the ship.
More than 250 cruise ships of all sizes and types ply the oceans from the northern tip of Norway to Antarctica. They carry from a few dozen passengers and crew to several thousands with accommodations that literally make them a floating city. The cruise industry reported that more than 2.5 million passengers traveled on a cruise last year. While most of us think in terms of a three-, four- or seven-day Caribbean cruise, it is becoming more frequent for cruises to last 12 or more days.
My wife, Diana, and I have cruised many times in the last 30 years, and have sailed all of the major oceans, with the exception of the Indian Ocean, and most of the major seas. Each time I'm aboard, I try to learn a little more about the crew's approach to firefighting and fire safety. Reported incidents of fires aboard cruise ships are rare. However, fires that are handled onboard and which don't require notification of passengers likely are not reported to any organization other than the cruise line itself. In fact, after perusing several sources — including data from the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Coast Guard and the NFPA — it appears that the latest cruise-ship passenger fire fatality occurred in 1995.
So it was a rare event when, in the early evening of June 18, 2009, the MS Royal Princess, one of the Princess Cruise Line's smaller ships, reported an engine-room fire approximately five miles off Port Said, Egypt, that required passengers to leave their state rooms and muster in the public areas.
Modern cruise ships have fire sprinklers in nearly every space. This is not only for life safety, but if you remember Rule No. 1, the ever-present sprinklers not only cut down on the gallons of water needed to extinguish a fire, but also the amount of water that needs to be pumped off the ship. For confined spaces, or those areas with electronics, a CO2 flooding system usually is employed. Ships like the Royal Princess usually are equipped with enough CO2 for two attempts at extinguishing a confined-space fire.
The fire aboard the Royal Princess began at approximately 8:10 p.m. local time on June 18, midway on a 12-day cruise from Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy, to Athens, Greece. The ship was about five miles offshore. The fire began in the engine room, a fact that not only was confirmed by several passengers who witnessed the thick black smoke trailing from that area of the ship, but also was reported almost immediately on the Internet by some passengers who heard the subsequent messages from the bridge to the passengers and crew.
Unlike the depiction of an engine room in the old movies, modern ship engine rooms are so automated that only a few crew members are needed to maintain the engines while the ship is underway; indeed, most of the engine-room monitoring is done by remote sensors and closed-circuit television to the bridge. Since Bermuda authorities have not released the final report on this incident, it is not known whether any crew members were present when the fire erupted. We do know that this ship is equipped with compartmentalized stairways that provide relatively safe cover from fire, smoke and heat so passengers and crew can climb to an adjacent floor.
Some have indicated that engine repairs had occurred during the stay in Port Said and further speculated that perhaps a coupling was not fastened securely in a fuel line that injects diesel under very high pressure into the engines. We do know that a fire of this type usually requires the fuel to be shut off and the lines bled of pressure to reduce the amount of fuel potentially fed to the fire.
Again, in the absence of a final report, we do not know for certain. But an assessment team comprised of crew members trained in SCBA and firefighting usually attempts to enter a space via an outside entrance or an escape passageway with a charged hose line for protection to make a size-up and strategy assessment.
I first heard of the fire while driving to work. Jim Scott, a radio personality on WLW in Cincinnati, and his wife, Donna, were onboard acting as tour guides for a group of passengers. Jim used his cell phone to call back to the station and report on the fire first-hand. His account caught my attention, and I had the opportunity to chat with him once he was home safely.
Jim and his wife were in the dining room when they heard the seven short and one long blast of the ship's horn indicating an emergency. This was followed by an announcement of a fire in the engine room and for passengers to collect their life vests and go to their muster stations. Jim indicated that all 700 passengers moved with calm and quickly complied.
The muster points — a lounge in the front of the ship and a restaurant/bar in the rear — provided relatively comfortable seating and direct access to the lifeboats had it become necessary to use them. A second announcement indicated that the ship's company was going to attempt to extinguish the fire with their CO2 flooding system. It also indicated that the ship would go dark during this attempt. This appears consistent with the need to make a confined space such as an engine room as airtight as possible to starve the fire and to hold the concentrated CO2 in place long enough to effectively extinguish the fire and cool the space.
The lack of air in the space also meant losing the regular lighting powered by the remaining engines and, most likely, auxiliary light provided by the emergency generator. What remained were battery-powered emergency lights in hallways and the muster crew with flashlights. Jim indicated that the crew requested passengers to make as little movement as possible due to the subdued lighting; meanwhile, the limited restroom facilities required a flashlight-equipped crew member to guide a passenger to and from, as well as to stand in the doorway to provide a minimal amount of light within the lavatory. Ironically, Jim said that smokers were allowed to go on deck for a cigarette.
At about 4 a.m., passengers were allowed to go outside to sleep in deck chairs. Jim remembered that sunrise as being particularly beautiful because it also confirmed that fire was out. Later that morning, the Royal Princess was assisted back to Port Said, where the passengers were told that the remainder of the cruise had been canceled and that they would have another day of sightseeing in Egypt and a hotel room on shore while the cruise line made arrangements for their travel back home. All in all, Jim indicated that while the situation was serious, he and his wife never felt threatened or that the ship's crew did not have a back-up should the fire not have been contained.
Despite extensive damage that forced the Royal Princess to miss its next cruise and be taken to Athens for additional repairs, it again sailed on July 3 on a 14-day cruise of Italy and the Mediterranean. My wife and I were passengers on this cruise, and noticed the officers' and crew's attention to detail — not only the emergency drill but also the several onboard fire drills for the ship's company. One evening during the captain's reception, an announcement was made for the assessment team to assemble for a fire that was reported in the fitness center. I could tell the events of three weeks prior were still on the minds of the officers and crew who left the reception. Fortunately, this turned out to be nothing more than an overheated motor on a piece of fitness equipment, but it proved how capable and ready this ship was to handle an emergency.
Shipboard firefighting is a different animal. Those firefighters, whether onboard a ship or covering a port, must take a different approach than most of us used to structural or even CFR firefighting. Thankfully, the major cruise lines have taken fire and other potential disasters at sea very seriously. It is a tribute to the onboard suppression systems, and to the constant drills that keep passengers from being too complacent.
Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, is the chief of Wyoming (Ohio) Fire-EMS, a 78-member combination fire department bordering Cincinnati. He previously served as the fire marshal of the state of Ohio. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is the immediate past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers-USA Branch. He is a member of the FIRE CHIEF Editorial Advisory Board.