In the two decades leading up to 2013, 65 boaters died in boat fires and CO incidents. In 2015, three people living on boats were killed in two fires and there was one carbon monoxide poisoning. Another two people died from CO poisoning on a small commercial fishing boat whilst sleeping aboard in harbour.
Whether it’s at marinas, canals, lakes, coastal inlets, harbours and quaysides, our national population of over 450,000 motorised boats is at risk of fire, explosion and CO poisoning across the whole of the UK.
Boat Safety Week takes place between 25 – 31 May, just as the leisure boating season is getting into swing with school holidays and sunny weekends ahead. Its aim is to raise awareness of how boaters on both coastal and inland waterways can prevent fire and CO incidents and how to react if an incident occurs.
The message, timed for the start of the boating season, is that owners should consider the risks, make regular, basic checks, and follow their engine and appliance operating guidelines, as the essential steps to deal with the fire and carbon monoxide threat.
Even a moderately sized boat can carry hundreds of litres of diesel and/or petrol as well as dozens of kilograms of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). These fuels are combined with readily combustible materials such as wood and glass-reinforced-plastic and they are all placed in close proximity of sources of heat and ignition, such as engines, 12, 24 and 240 volt electrics and solid fuel stoves.
According to the Boat Safety Scheme 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 equipment in buildings. Boat owners need to keep their eyes, ears and noses alert to 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 and damaged shore line cables, plugs and sockets.
Boat owners are urged to keep alert to possible leaks, poor running engines and the strong smell of petrol. Spare petrol should not be carried on board unless it is completely unavoidable. If it is required, proper cans should be used and the capacity limited (UK law allows only restricted amounts of spare petrol to be carried aboard.) It should be stored well away from sources of ignition and out of direct sunlight; cans should not be overfilled, as petrol expands and vapour pressure can build up in hot weather. Decanting petrol from containers should be avoided if possible, and re-filling containers or equipment should take place in the open air on the bank and away from sources of ignition.
Solid fuel stoves continue to be a significant cause of fire on inland waterway boats. These heaters are very popular on narrow boats, 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. And there have been many other incidents where no one was hurt but the boat and belongings aboard suffered a lot of damage.
The main risks to be avoided or managed are the ‘over-firing’ of the stove leading to 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 and poor maintenance or misuse of the stove.
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 by somebody competent to carry out work on Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) systems. Gas canisters, bottles or cylinders should be stored upright and in a location 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.
Flexible hoses should be checked for damage or deterioration and if in any doubt about their good condition, have them professionally checked and renewed. The LPG system can be checked for leakage by routine observation of a bubble tester installed in the cylinder locker, or by testing all joints with leak detection fluid.
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 its usage should be restricted to times ashore. And fuel canisters should always be changed away from the boat and away from ignition sources.
Over 30 boaters have died in the last 20 years from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. While at higher levels it kills, it is still a danger at lower concentrations as it can cause chronic illness with long term effects.
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. All such equipment should be installed properly, in the way the manufacturers describe, operational instructions should be followed correctly and regular maintenance should be undertaken. Ventilation should not be blocked; appliance fuels such as gas, coal, wood, oil and paraffin need sufficient air to burn completely and safely.
On no account should charcoal BBQs be brought on board, or be near a cabin during or after use – tests have proved that they actually give off more CO as they are cooling down than they do during the cooking process.
Smoke Alarms and CO Alarms
In the absence of any British or international standards incorporating a suitable code for marine installation, the recommendation is installation of an optical smoke alarm with alkaline batteries that can be removed when the boat is not used for longer periods, especially in winter. Optical smoke alarms recognise 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. 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.
Generally, alarms should be mounted on the deck head (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 in large boats it is recommended to choose units that can be linked together.
For boats with fuel burning appliances, an engine or generator aboard, the recommendation is to fit a suitable audible carbon monoxide alarm for an added re-assurance. Best suited for boats are carbon monoxide alarms that meet BS EN 50291-2 and are approved by BSI for use in boats and caravans.
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, try to place the alarm in living quarters between 1m and 3m from the appliance and high up on a wall, but at least 150mm from the ceiling and where the indicator lights can be seen. Before fixing, test that the alarm can be heard from any position in the boat.
More information about CO safety on boats can be found on our website.
For fire extinguishers accepted by the Boat Safety Scheme, please visit our P50 fire extinguisher section.
Safelincs is supporting BSS and Fire Kills with the sponsorship of two safety leaflets. ‘Carbon Monoxide Safety on Boats’ and ‘Fire Safety on Boats’ 30,000 copies of which will be distributed by 25 Fire and Rescue Services this year.