Fishermen train to fight boat fires


by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

Posted on May 25, 2011 at 11:00 PM

Updated Thursday, May 26 at 9:15 AM

NORTH BEND, Wash. -- A boat is quite possibly the worst place to experience a fire.  

"The biggest fear on a fishing boat is a fire," said Max Callaghan, a part-time worker on a fishing vessel.  "You're trapped.  There's no where to go.  You can't run away from it."

And there is no easy way for a fire department to help.

It's why many who make a living on boats, including fishermen and ferry workers, learn how to fight fires at the state's Fire Training Academy near North Bend.

A group of 13 fishermen trained for a day at the academy last week. 

They spent more than half of the day focusing on fire extinguishers -- from filling them up to using them. 

"The fire extinguisher is basically your first line of defense," instructor Ted Smith said.

Fire instructor Bob Kelley spent 20 years in the Navy.

"Out of all the fires I fought while I was in the Navy, only one was not put out by a portable fire extinguisher," he told the students.

For many of the fishermen, it was their first time using a fire extinguisher.  Some were able to put out a fire in a matter of seconds.  But others failed to vanquish the flames before the extinguisher emptied, typically after about 20 seconds.

Damien English, the chief chef on a fishing vessel, said the training prepared him to tackle a real-life fire.

"This is something you can't train with a book for," he said.  "This physical experience is the best."

The fishermen also learned how to use a carbon dioxide extinguisher, which is often useful for electrical fires and needs to be grounded before it is used.

After mastering the extinguishers, the fishermen moved inside to experience fire in an enclosed space.  Instructors wanted them to see and feel how smoke and heat rise, then watch how the flames react to water.

They also practiced searching for victims inside a pitch-black room, which was not easy.

"It was like a maze," said Jack Callaghan.  "I kept hitting stuff on the ground, almost tripping over."

In the end, instructors hope the fishermen are able to quickly put out fires so they do not have to escape into a lifeboat, or even worse, the water, because it is unclear how quickly the Coast Guard will be able to rescue them.

"They didn't sign up for [fighting fires] but unfortunately, its one of the realities that could happen," Kelley said.  "Just as a fire can happen in your home, it can happen on your vessel."