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Boat Safety 2020 - stay safe from fire and carbon monoxide

26 May 2020

The key message of this year's National Boat Fire Safety Week is for all boats to have suitable smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

canal boat on fire

Timed for the start of the boating season, the heart of the message is that all crew members should understand the risks and follow the published advice from the Boat Safety Scheme in its leaflets and on its website.

Despite all efforts, should fire break out or a carbon monoxide escape occur, the critical survival factor will be the presence of suitable working smoke and CO alarms. The Scheme publishes lists of suitable alarms on its website and has advice from the manufacturers on the best places to fix the devices. Alarms should be tested using the test button routinely and the batteries replaced as necessary and never removed.

Boat Safety Scheme manager, Graham Watts said:

“In the past 20 years, 30 boaters were killed in boat fires and another 30 lost their lives to the highly toxic CO gas.

boats moored in marina“It’s time everyone in the boating community said ‘no more avoidable tragedies’. Being protected by suitable smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be viewed as a normal part of boat ownership”

For further information about general boat fire and CO safety, visit www.boatsafetyscheme.org/stay-safe

Whether it’s at marinas, canals, lakes, coastal inlets, harbours and quaysides, the national population of over 350,000 motorised boats is presenting a potential risk of fire, explosion and CO poisoning incidents across the whole of the UK. 

In 2018-19 four boat fire fatalities occurred and all victims lived alone aboard their boat. Alcohol consumption was a significant factor in two of the deaths and none of the boats are thought to have had smoke alarms on board.

In the two decades leading up to 2020, around 60 boaters died in boat fires and CO incidents – with a near equal split. From 1 April, 2020 at least one alarm became a requirement on most inland waterway boats subject the BSS Requirements.

This will help protect boat owners from sources of CO from neighbouring boats and is expected to help prevent death or injury to crew members from their own boat engines or appliances.

Fire and Carbon Monoxide Risk on Boats

canal boats moored alongside towpathMany fires and carbon monoxide incidents happen as a result of human error, poor installation of equipment/appliances and on occasion, dangerous practices by boaters.

Many people do not appreciate the risks associated with boats and their domestic equipment and installations. Even a moderate sized boat can carry hundreds of litres of diesel, tens of kilograms of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and 20-50 litres of petrol. These fuels are combined with readily combustible materials such as wood and fibre/glass-reinforced-plastic and they are all placed in close proximity to sources of heat and ignition such as engines or appliances, 12 or 24V DC and 240V AC electrics and solid fuel stoves.

Due to the fuels, boat construction and the nature of moorings, fire can easily spread to, and damage, neighbouring crafts, adjacent jetties and nearby properties.

In 2018 the most common types of accidental fires on boats recorded were electrical, engine and engine exhaust and solid fuel stove fires (same as previous years).

Anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that carbon monoxide poisoning risks are only properly understood by a minority of boaters. From the records, boaters are most at risk from the exhaust emissions of inboard and portable petrol engines and generators, or problems with solid fuel stoves including flue pipes.

Electrical issues

This is a wide subject but, according to the BSS records, electrical problems have been in the top three causes of boat fires in the past five years.

Flawed installations, poor maintenance, inappropriate appliances or incorrect use are the root of many incidents - especially in an environment with vibrations, flexing, humidity, high and low temperatures, cramped spaces, water and in many cases salt exposure – electrical systems and installations face a lot of stress compared with the same sort of electrical needs in buildings. Boat owners need to keep their eyes, ears and noses alert and deal with any problems
immediately.

The key potential electrical hazard points include:

  • Loose connections
  • Worn, chaffed or cracked insulation on wires
  • Exposed battery terminals
  • Low levels of fluid in batteries, combined with inappropriate battery charging
  • Unsuitable or badly maintained appliances
  • Poor fusing and defective breakers
  • Inverters / generators
  • Damaged shore line cables, plugs and sockets


Petrol

The BSS urges owners to keep their boats well maintained and to keep alert to possible leaks, poor running engines and the strong smell of petrol. This is the BSS advice for boaters:

Escaping vapour will sink to the lowest level of its surroundings. It builds up at low level in places such as cabin floors, lockers, bilges and other ‘still-air’ spaces.

Even if the concentration of vapour is too rich to ignite immediately, it will dilute creating the potential for a serious fire and/or an explosion, even though, given enough ventilation, it may dissipate to a safe level eventually.

These are ten petrol safety essentials that will help keep you and your crew safe:

1. Before starting out, use all senses to check the fuel system and engine for petrol leaks or any signs of damage or deterioration. Have any problems sorted out first.
2. Do not switch on the electrical supply or turn the ignition key if there’s a strong smell of petrol. Stop immediately if there’s a strong smell of petrol after you
start.
3. Keep vapour out of the boat! Before refuelling, close all windows, hatches, doors and awnings; also turn off all cooking appliances and any other ignition
sources.
4. Double check before you start pouring, that you are using the correct filling point.
5. Afterwards, clean up any spills straight away. Be sure to re-secure the filler cap.
6. Avoid decanting petrol from containers, but if you have to, use anti-spill containers, spouts or nozzles to allow, clean and easy, no-spill refuelling.
7. Don’t carry spare fuel, unless it is needed and then it must be in cans specifically designed for petrol. Always keep within the legal capacity limits.
8. Containers should never be filled completely and must be stowed securely upright, away from intense heat and out of direct sunlight to prevent ressurisation.
9. Refuel any portable engine or tank ashore and safely away from any sources of ignition. Always follow marina / mooring rules on petrol refuelling and handling.
10. Never use any bowl, bucket or other open container to carry or transfer petrol or mix in 2-stroke oil.

For more details go to www.boatsafetyscheme.org/petrolsafety

Solid fuel stoves

Solid fuel stoves continue to be a significant cause of fire on inland waterway boats. These heaters are very popular on narrowboats, coastal barges and on some classic and vintage yachts or ex-fishing boats.

There were at least two dozen boaters hurt and five killed in using solid fuel stoves in the first decade of the 21st century. There have many other incidents
where no one was hurt but the boat and belongings aboard suffered a lot of damage.

The following are the six risks that must be avoided or managed, if boaters and crews are to keep safe with solid fuel stoves:

  • A lack of crew appreciation or vigilance, combined with poor appliance air inlet control, leading to 'over-firing' of the stove causing a boat fire
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning due to the escape of stove flue gases into the cabin
  • Items and materials being too close and getting too hot for too long
  • Running stoves with doors open (forgetfulness, naivety, broken catches, falling asleep)
  • Poor maintenance and misuse of the stove leading to a chimney fire
  • Poor stowage of hot/cooling ash and embers, either in the cabin or in unprotected areas of risk on decks (near flammable objects, near cabin ventilators, on combustible surfaces

Good information explaining how to avoid these risks is available at:
http://www.boatsafetyscheme.org/stay-safe/solid-fuel-stoves

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)

Fixed gas systems must be installed to accepted boat installation standards and in accordance with the appliance manufacturer’s instructions. Gas appliances and flues should be routinely serviced and maintained.

  • Make sure gas canisters, bottles or cylinders are stored upright and where any leaking gas will flow overboard and not into the interior of the craft. Preferably, this will be in a suitable, vapour-tight, self-draining locker. 
  • Check flexible hoses for damage or deterioration. If you’re in any doubt about their good condition, get them professionally checked and renewed
  • Check your LPG system for leakage by routine observation of a bubble tester installed in the cylinder locker, or by testing all joints with leak detection fluid
  • Portable ‘camping style’ equipment
  • Owners of boats without proper galley facilities are recommended to consider using a flask for hot drinks when aboard as portable camping equipment is not suitable.
  • Following explosions, fires and CO incidents in boats, caravans and other enclosed spaces, boaters should heed any instructions for portable gas equipment that states it should only be used outdoors.
  • Unless any portable gas equipment is specifically designed for boat use, then it should be used ashore. And whatever else happens, fuel canisters should always be changed away from the boat and away from ignition sources. Equipment and canisters should be stowed in a self-draining gas locker, or on open deck where any escaping gas can flow overboard.

Carbon monoxide (CO)

Over 30 boaters have died in the last 20 years from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning - 19 deaths and a further 21 people required hospital treatment due to accidental poisoning by CO in exhaust fumes from boat engines or generators.

In June 2016, a middle- aged couple died as a result of CO poisoning whilst the boat was moored at a picturesque Norfolk Broads location. They were seemingly running the boat’s very large petrol engine to charge the batteries.

Amazingly, a light wind over the cockpit awning seemingly acted as a funnel to draw engine exhaust fumes inside the boat through a slightly-open flap of the fabric structure. 

Since then, two further CO fatalities have occurred in similar circumstances. If you’re smelling and breathing in petrol-engine exhaust fumes, stop the engine and get off the boat.

Know the symptoms of CO poisoning, if anyone is indicating they are suffering, get them medical help. If the symptoms are severe – call the emergency services.

As a belt and braces defence, install a CO alarm certified to the BS EN 50291-2 standard, test it routinely and never remove the batteries
There is a potential for exhaust and flue gasses to be drawn into a boat from a neighbouring boat, through open doors, windows and fixed ventilators. A suitable CO alarm is the only protection against this possibility.

While at higher levels it kills, CO is still a danger at lower concentrations as it can cause chronic illness affecting peoples’ physical and mental health. This poison gas has multiple potential sources on boats including all fuel-burning appliances, flues, chimneys, engines and exhausts. It is the by-product of an
incomplete combustion of carbon-based appliance and engine fuels – such as gas, LPG, coal, wood, paraffin, oil, petrol and diesel.

So staying safe begins with installing all such equipment properly, in the way the maker describes. The continued safe enjoyment of boats will endure if maintenance doesn’t drift, or repairs are not put-off and equipment operational instructions are followed.

It’s also crucial for continued safety that everyone aboard understands the risks and knows the danger signs; they must always be watchful.

For more tips and advice to help you and your crew stay safe go to www.boatsafetyscheme.org/CO

Smoke Alarms Save Lives

In the absence of any British or international standards incorporating a suitable code for marine installation, the Fire Protection Association’s advice is that the alarm of choice is; an optical alarm with a long-life battery, a hush button and one that meets BS EN 14604:2005. We also advise boaters look for a BSi, LPCB, or the German VdS certification mark.

This advice recognises the confined nature of the space inside a boat and the potential for high levels of humidity and vibration, wider temperature ranges and an aggressive chemical atmosphere. These conditions may affect battery lifespan hence the recommendation for the lithium sealed alarms. Even though some boats have 230/240 V ac systems, mains powered alarms are not recommended due to the erratic and unreliable nature of the power supply.

Follow the alarm makers instructions for fitting and where these are not specific for boats, the advice is that alarms should be mounted on the deckhead (ceiling), 30cm from the cabin sides and within five metres of each protected area of the vessel. On some boats this will mean installing more than one alarm, and it is recommended to choose units that can be linked together.

Guidelines produced by BSS on smoke alarms in boats can be found here, including a list of models recommended for boats by the manufacturers:
http://www.boatsafetyscheme.org/stay-safe/fire-safety-for-boats

Carbon monoxide alarms

For boats with fuel burning appliances, an engine or generator aboard, the strong recommendation is to fit a suitable audible carbon monoxide alarm for an added reassurance.

'Black-spot' colour-changing indicator cards are not good enough. Boaters will not have an instant warning of dangerous CO levels and there's no alarm to wake up anyone asleep. The BSS advice is to fit alarms that meet BS EN 50291-2; these are best suited for boats, choose only those with a BSi or LPCB certification mark.(see www.boatsafetyscheme.org/CO-Alarm-Advice)

For the best protection, follow the alarm manufacturer's installation instructions as far as the space and nature of the boat allow. But if the placement directions are difficult to meet on any boat, these are the 'best practice' points. Try to place the alarm:

  • In living quarters between 1m and 3m (on plan view) from the appliance
  • Keep alarms from being directly above a source of heat or steam
  • If wall mounting an alarm, fix it high up, but at least 150mm from the ceiling and where the indicator lights can be seen
  • If ceiling mounting, fix alarms at least 300mm from the cabin sides and bulkheads
  • In sleeping quarters have the alarm in the "breathing zone", i.e.near the bed head
  • Before fixing, test that the alarm can be heard from any position in the boat (or buy further alarm(s))


Fire safety – prioritising the vulnerable boat dwellers

There are around 80,000 boats on the inland waterways, there are around 350,000 boats in and around UK in total, including the inland craft.

On Canal & River Trust waterways, 23% of boaters say their boat is their permanent home (this was just 15% in 2011). In London 60% of boaters say their boat in their primary home. Residential use of use of boats is growing also on coastal creeks and estuaries.

On the inland waterways there a have been 10 boat fire fatalities in last 10 years and 12 boat CO fatalities in the last 12 years. Most inland boat fires involve boats used as residences and most fires involve persons with vulnerabilities. Vulnerability usually involves abuse of drink or drugs, but boaters may have multiple issues, for example, poverty, health conditions or disabilities including mental health, debt, loneliness, isolation.

The following trends are identified concerning the 10 inland waterway boat fire fatalities in the past 10 years:

  • Victim age 40+ 70%
  • Residential use 70%
  • Single occupancy 70%
  • Drink/drugs use 80%

To summarise, Boat Fire Safety Week's main themes include:

  • Strongly recommending against the use of LPG camping appliances aboard
  • Promoting safe candle use
  • Safe use of portable liquid-fuelled heating appliances
  • Safe storage and handling of petrol
  • Use of generators away from the boat
  • The provision of a suitable smoke alarm, and CO alarm
  • Reacting to signs of heat damage on materials and all surfaces adjacent to appliances
  • Assessing the escape routes for blockage or doors locked from the outside
  • Assessing the suitability of the boat for habitation