Common Causes Of Fire Aboard Ships – And How To Fight Them

Dry powder fire extinguisher red cabinet on ferry ship UK


Despite the prevalence of water around a vessel, most ships carry with them a number of fire hazards and other risks.

Hundreds of fires aboard boats are reported each year, both in privately-owned, recreational vessels and larger commercial boats alike. While the causes for these fires can vary greatly from one vessel to another, knowing the more common causes of these fires – and how they can be prevented – is a crucial first step for fire safety on the water.

Preventing Fires Aboard Boats

Leaky high-pressure fuel pipes

For larger commercial vessels, the fuel system is a complex network of piping, tubes, and motors to move the fuel where it needs to go. Accordingly, these high-pressure systems serve as one of the greatest risks of fire onboard a larger boat, as the fuel itself is highly flammable and often travels through areas of great heat and friction due to the machinery involved.

Prevention Tips: Preventing fires from fuel pipes requires a lot of proactive maintenance. Most modern fuel systems are sheathed, allowing for any potential leaks to be funneled down to a storage tank that catches any leaked oil. These sheathes and tanks must be frequently inspected for any damage and to make sure they’re not already at capacity and may overflow if additional oil is introduced. If your fuel system is an older model without the protective sheathing, then constant inspection and maintenance on fittings, pressure gauges, joints, and other crucial components of the fuel system is a must to prevent leaks.

Flammable material or excess heat 

Above and beyond the fuel system itself, there exists the chance for flammable material to pool elsewhere onboard the vessel. Areas for fuel storage or vessel maintenance, as well as areas with a high concentration of steam pipes and/or other hot surfaces are equally prone to fires. Even if the machinery itself is functioning as designed, puddles or other flammable materials can spark and catch fire under these more extreme conditions.

Prevention Tips: Frequent cleaning in these areas is crucial, as the only way to really prevent a fire under these circumstances is to remove any material that may catch fire when exposed to heat. Keep an eye out for condensation on steam pipes, flammable liquids or other materials that may be too close to a heat source, and any potential tripping hazards in areas of delicate machinery or high heat buildup.

Improperly disposed waste

Similarly, the risk of fire can continue even when the materials have seemingly been disposed of. Oily rags, partially-full containers of flammable liquids, and even broken/disused electrical equipment can still pose a risk of fire unless thrown away in the proper containers, in a safe area.

Prevention tips: For any dangerous material that needs to be disposed of before you can safely remove it from the vessel, make sure to use containers that have lids (such as barrels, or locking trash receptacles) to keep them away from the elements. These containers should be kept as far away from direct sources of heat or delicate machinery as possible, in order to lessen the risk of being exposed to heat, sparks, or friction. 

Malfunctioning fire extinguishers

Just like you were always warned at home, an outdated or malfunctioning fire extinguisher is the last thing you want to encounter during an emergency. No matter how easily contained a fire may seem, if your fire extinguishers have expired or malfunction due to a lack of maintenance, the fire can easily become dangerous – or even fatal.

Prevention tips: Luckily, this has a simple solution: proper maintenance of all fire extinguishers. Whenever able, especially at dry dock when you can easily replace them, inspect all onboard fire extinguishers for signs of damage, leakage, or past expiration dates. This will keep one of your most valuable safety assets available whenever you need it – even if you hope you never do.

If you or a loved one have been injured by a fire onboard a vessel that could’ve been prevented, contact the maritime attorneys of O’Bryan Law today.

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