The Forgotten Safety Equipment

Posted: February 1, 2014

Don’t overlook your boat’s fire extinguishers.

By: Story and photo by Deane Hislop

The gear the U.S. Coast Guard and state regulations require us to carry aboard our boats is often purchased, stowed and promptly forgotten until we are subject to an inspection or find ourselves in the middle of an emergency. Neither of these is a good time to discover an item doesn’t measure up, especially if that item is a fire extinguisher.

Unless your boat is an entirely open outboard-powered vessel less than 26 feet in length, you are required to have at least one Coast Guard-approved fire extinguisher on board. Whether it’s required or not, it makes sense to have an extinguisher on any boat that carries fuel or a combustible of any kind. Because extinguishers are often mounted or stowed out of the way, or even out of sight, it’s easy to forget them. Yet, it’s crucial that you be aware of their age and condition and provide maintenance where and when it’s needed to ensure their readiness and their compliance with the regulations.

Dry-powder extinguishers are the most common type found on pleasureboats. They are compact, inexpensive and meet Class B requirements (effective on fires involving flammable liquids). Most have a simple pressure gauge to indicate their readiness, but checking the gauge is only one step. The powder charge can settle and become compacted during long periods of disuse, so the extinguisher needs to be dismounted and shaken thoroughly at least a couple of times a year to keep the powder loose and ready for use. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that non-rechargeable powder-type extinguishers be routinely replaced after five years, even though they haven’t been used and appear to be in good shape. More expensive heavy-duty extinguishers are rechargeable and may not need to be replaced for up to 12 years. In either case, timely replacement is inexpensive insurance against failure.

Fire extinguishers should never be tested by opening them. Resist the urge to give them a little squirt to see that they’re working. All of them have a very short operating time, as little as eight seconds, so even a quick blast can seriously reduce their effectiveness when you need them most.

Extinguishers should be checked regularly for physical damage or blockage. Many inexpensive units are fitted with plastic heads, controls and nozzles that can be damaged easily. Plastic heads are also the most likely to leak, so check them regularly. Any extinguisher whose gauge indicator needle points to the red zone or even close to it should be recharged or replaced immediately. For inexpensive powder extinguishers, recharging isn’t an option, but replacement is the best course anyway, because you end up with new valves and controls in addition to a full, fresh charge.

Some types of extinguishers must be periodically inspected and tagged by an authorized service provider to maintain their approved status. Automatic gaseous extinguishers (CO2 and FM type) cannot be checked by simply reading their pressure gauges, since they can contain a reduced charge and still show adequate pressure. The extinguisher, or tank, in the case of installed systems, must be weighed to ensure it’s still full. Those that have lost more than 10 percent of their charge must be recharged in order to be effective. Weighing them should be done as part of a semi-annual inspection.

The maintenance of installed auto systems is more involved. They must be ready to deploy instantly without human intervention. Their heat sensors and nozzles should be inspected regularly to ensure that they are clean, unobstructed and undamaged. In addition to having the tanks weighed, the components of installed systems must also be removed, completely disassembled, inspected and rebuilt every six years by an authorized service facility in order to retain their approved status.

Regulations specify the minimum size and number of extinguishers you must carry, but think of it as just that, the minimum. A large-capacity extinguisher is always better than a small one. A Coast Guard rated B-II powder extinguisher contains five times more powder than a B-I. Two are always better than one.

Always show guests where extinguishers are mounted or stowed, and give them instructions on how to use the devices. This will not only ensure that they are able to assist in an emergency, but it will also make you pay more attention to your fire extinguishers, which is a good thing.

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