Engine Fire Extinguishers - Could your insurance be invalid?

In this article, Karl Pentin, Director of marine safety equipment specialists, Safety Marine, looks at how to ensure your marine insurance policy is valid in the event of a fire on board. He also highlights the danger of using dry powder fire extinguishers to tackle engine fires.

The statements that many insurers use to define your responsibilities for fire prevention can be difficult to understand. They will usually require you to ensure that there is 'adequate fire fighting provision' on your vessel. But they rarely expand this statement to give you sufficiently clear information about how to make sure what you have on board is really adequate.

Insurers may also include several other clauses in their policy wording that will require you to ensure the 'vessel stays within the law' ; that equipment should be 'suitable for its intended use', and should be 'used in an appropriate manner'.

So what does this mean in practice?

The Legal Position

Under UK law, there is no requirement for a vessel up to 45ft (13.7m) to have any sort of fire fighting equipment on board.

From 45ft up to 78ft (13.7m to 24m), the vessel falls under Class-12 (Class XII) of the Merchant Shipping Regulations and as such has a legal obligation to carry certain minimum fire fighting equipment.

The MCA, working with the RYA, has now rationalised this requirement where it is applied to leisure craft, and the equipment that is now required is fairly sensible and easy to fit on most leisure craft. For details of these requirements see: Fire Fighting Appliances applicable to Class-12 Vessels

The Insurance Position

Insurers require you to 'stay within the law'. A vessel of 45ft or larger must therefore carry the minimum equipment outlined under the Class-12 vessel requirements to be properly insured.

The insurers also require you to ensure that there is 'adequate fire fighting provision'. This requirement effectively catches every other vessel under 45ft but it also opens up questions about what is actually considered to be 'adequate'.

The best answer is perhaps to say that no matter what the size of vessel, all boats should carry the minimum equipment outlined under the Class-12 vessel requirements. That way, you can say with confidence that you are following published guidelines.

But then we come to the issues of equipment having to be 'suitable for its intended use' and 'used in an appropriate manner'.

The Class-12 vessel requirements specify the standard and fire rating of the fire fighting equipment (fire extinguishers) that should be carried on the vessel.

This is helpful, but what they don't tell you is how the equipment should be used and what effects these fire extinguishers will have when they are used to tackle fires in different situations.

When NOT to Use a Dry Powder Fire Extinguisher!

The most common type of fire extinguisher found on a boat is the dry powder model. This is a useful 'all-round' fire extinguisher suitable for the situations identified by fire classifications A, B and C. (For an explanation of these classifications, see Fire Classifications & Fire Extinguishers.)

However, when you discharge a dry powder extinguisher it leaves a fine layer of powder, - much of which can turn into a sticky mess when it touches flames or hot metal.

The substance found in most dry powder fire extinguishers usually consists of either ammonium phosphate, potassium bicarbonate or sodium bicarbonate (otherwise known as bicarbonate of soda or baking powder!)

Unfortunately, ammonium phosphate can react with any moisture present to form phosphoric acid, which is highly corrosive and can easily seep into the smallest cracks in equipment, as well as remove paint. Left in place, the powder will draw moisture from the air and a common example of this acid corrosion will be chrome being replaced with rust.

More seriously, should the powder get taken into the air intakes, it could quite easily ruin the engine.

So even though you managed to tackle an engine fire quickly by discharging an extinguisher through the little hole in your engine bay cover, you may have caused more damage to your engine than the fire itself, simply because of your choice of fire extinguisher.

Fire industry professionals will always advise you to avoid using a dry powder fire extinguisher in an engine space - but if you have no choice, then it is critical that you shut the engines down first.

A Worrying Situation!

This is a worrying situation because there are literally thousands of boats on the water with nothing more than dry powder fire extinguishers on board.

And even more concerning, is that there are hundreds of boats out there whose owners have installed small automatic engine fire extinguishers, bought from their local chandlery, that contain normal ABC dry powder - under the impression that this will reduce the risk of serious damage should an engine fire occur.

Unfortunately, leisure boat owners are rarely aware of this issue, and the staff in many general chandlers may not have the specialist technical knowledge to advise boat owners appropriately.

With your engine bay blackened with smoke and your 'Yanmar' or 'Volvo' refusing to start, imagine your horror when your insurer informs you that by using a dry powder fire extinguisher you failed to ensure that your fire fighting equipment was 'suitable for its intended use' and was not 'used in an appropriate manner'?

Does this sound like a tall tale from the yacht club bar?

Well it has already happened. And with clean, non-hazardous and cost-effective alternatives readily available - there is no reason to expect that insurers will continue to pay out for expensive engine fire claims, when for few hundred pounds an owner could have easily installed a fully approved, totally clean and incredibly effective alternative to dry powder.

What to Remember:

  • Boat owners should be aware of the suitability of different types of fire extinguisher for different fire situations
  • Dry powder fire extinguishers should NEVER be discharged into an engine bay unless the engine is switched off
  • Boat owners should consider installing a correctly-sized automatic engine fire extinguisher that either contains FM200 an alternative Halon replacement.

With fire being the single greatest cause of vessels being lost or seriously damaged, all boat owners should be aware of their responsibilities for ensuring that suitable fire fighting equipment is provided on the vessel. Even if that requirement is simply to fulfil the terms of an insurance policy.

For independent technical advice about marine fire fighting systems, and FM200 automatic engine fire extinguishers, call the Safety Marine technical team on Tel: 02380 226300 or email advice@safety-marine.co.uk


The Beacon Logo

For the latest marine safety news each month, regulation changes and invaluable practical safety advice, simply submit your email address.