Fire down below:
It’s fetch a bucket of water, boys,
There’s fire down below...
So goes the old song. It’s sung to rather a jolly tune, but it refers to one of the seafarer’s greatest fears: fire at sea.
The non-seafarer may find this fear illogical – the ship is surrounded by water, after all – but seafarers, and firefighters with experience of shipboard firefighting, know that the fear is very well-justified. Vessels at sea, whether big ships or small craft, tend to be filled with combustible materials, sometimes in highly toxic combinations; and heat rises. No-one wants to fight a fire from above, but often, at sea, there is little choice. And the situation is exacerbated if the fire becomes general: there is nowhere to escape to but over the side. 60 people discovered this when the tourist boat Peejay caught fire off Whakatane, New Zealand, on 18 January, for example.
Firefighting at sea is a specialist activity, and big ships’ crews are trained in it. But they will be the first to admit that they are not professional firefighters – and professional firefighters agree that working on incidents at sea is a specialist activity for them too. It requires specific training and equipment – including the necessary extra training and equipment needed for the offshore transfer, by helicopter or boat, and to support their on-board safety.
A number of fire services around the world have studied the problem and have developed sophisticated maritime response capabilities as a result. In most cases they are able to bring skills to the party that go beyond firefighting: chemical hazard response, for example, or technical on-board rescue capabilities. This multi-tasking capability has led to the specialist teams often being known as ‘Maritime Incident Response Groups’.
The availability of such a resource for SAR use, as opposed to salvage, is a very useful aid, especially in mass rescue operations. Readers familiar with the IMRF’s mass rescue operations guidance will be aware that we regard the provision of on-scene support, to help extend the time available for rescue, as one of the means of overcoming the problem of having insufficient resources to rescue everyone in time. Professional fire teams can be deployed to assist ships’ staff, thereby ‘buying time’ for the evacuation of passengers, say – or, hopefully, removing the need for it altogether.
As we also note in our guidance material, it is useful to consider blurring the line between SAR and the commercial activity of salvage. Salving a ship can be a means of ‘rescuing’ people able to remain aboard her.
Maritime Incident Response Groups are not an alternative to the extensive firefighting and other assistance capabilities of salvors. As the diagram kindly provided by the UK’s Fire & Rescue Marine Response unit shows, fire teams are intended to be deployed as a SAR aid before salvage companies can swing into action. These teams are shore-based, so cannot arrive on board immediately: the ship’s crew’s initial responses remain as vital as ever. When they do arrive, however, their expertise will be of very considerable help to the Master in his further decision-making and action.
Now, linked to our resources to help with planning for mass rescue operations, the IMRF has developed a new website for sharing Maritime Incident Response Group information.
The website – imrfmirg.org – is designed to provide a user-friendly link to knowledge, information, initiatives and contacts. It contains a library of MIRG documents and files for public use, to which you may submit your own material. There is also a blog, and if you register (for free!) you can join the site’s forum. Share and learn: it’s good to talk!
There are also links to other useful sites – including the Baltic Sea Maritime Incident Response Group Project: see below – and you can read the latest news on the subject, and submit news items of your own.
We will continue to build on the information available, and we encourage organisations and individuals working in this field to be proactive in sending us content.
Questions or suggestions? Please visit the site, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.