Good Housekeeping and Fire Prevention Go Hand in Hand

The worst disaster on a vessel is fire. It trumps all of the other onboard catastrophes since it has the capacity to cause any one or all of them. Fires lead can lead to explosion, sinking, injury, etc.

Your best defense against a fire on a vessel is the same as it is at home. Good housekeeping is the answer. Everything should be in its place, properly stowed and easily accessible. If that is the case, and the crew is properly trained for an emergency, you are likely to cut any big disaster off at the pass.

A common example of poor housekeeping is what the U.S. Navy refers to as “gear adrift.” Gear adrift is anything that is not stowed in its proper place. It can be tools, clothing, cleaning supplies, rigging, or sports gear, just to name a few.

An associate of ours once told us about an example of the classic “bad housekeeping” problem. His friend put his motor yacht in the boatyard for a serious up fitting of the interior. While in the yard, some maintenance work was done in the engine room. A bucket with oily rags was left in the engine room after the work was completed. The owner picked his boat up and proceeded toward his homeport.

The oily rags in the bucket apparently had a case of what was formerly termed “spontaneous combustion.” In recent years, the term “spontaneous ignition” has been used, since it is actually the ignition that is spontaneous. In any event, the oily rags were the apparent cause of a fire onboard. Had they been discarded, or stored in the proper container, we wouldn’t be talking about it.

The fire that resulted was quickly extinguished by a built-in halon system in the engine room. Those systems can operate by an automatic triggering device. They flood the engine room with halon gas and smother the fire. The system is very effective. The point to be made is that the oily rags and the bucket were two pieces of “gear adrift.”

Just as in industry, there are containers designed for storing such things that would have had the oily rags in an environment that would not have contributed to the spontaneous ignition. In the open engine room, with the heat from two diesel engines and the oxygen from the fresh air vents, the stage was set.

Another source of trouble is loose gear stored in an engine compartment that comes in contact with your battery terminals. Most boat batteries sit in a plastic case with a cover. That cover is to ensure that no metal objects (like a spare anchor) can lie across the battery terminals, causing a short and sparks.

Anything that provides the path for a short circuit can cause the related wiring to heat up and transmit the problem to other areas. The spark component of the mix can ignite any nearby paper, cloth, cardboard and a host of other combustible materials. At that point, one thing leads to another and the dominos begin to fall.

Just as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is said to have kicked over a kerosene lamp and started the “Great Chicago Fire,” gear adrift at sea can be trouble. So remember, “Good Housekeeping” is the best fire prevention!

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit or call toll-free 866-249-2135.