Your Fire Extinguisher

A partially discharged fire extinguisher

A partially discharged fire extinguisher

On a cold Sunday last winter some friends were on their way from Kirkland to a Frostbite Series race on Lake Union when the Coast Guard pulled along side their sailboat.

The Coast Guard Boarding Officer ask if they had been boarded recently, their reply of “no” was followed by a very polite request by the Boarding Officer to allow the Boarding Party to come aboard their vessel for a safety check (note: the Coast Guard can board a vessel any time it’s underway).

My friends were confident they met the safety requirements having  inspected their boat using these guidelines  and a check list (PDF) I had sent them.   So outside of the normal nervousness that comes from having visitors from a boat with blue lights on the top, they were confident they would pass any check by the Boarding Officers.

closeup of a partially discharged fire extinguisher gauge

Closeup of a partially discharged fire extinguisher gauge

Things went well, papers, registration, life jacket count, flares, as the Boarding Party worked down their list, then they came to the fire extinguishers and  the gauges on two of the fire extinguishers were just down into the red.  The cold weather had apparently caused the pressure in the fire extinguishers to drop just enough to make the fire extinguishers look not fully charged.  They did have three fire extinguishers on board, one more than the two required for their boat length, they were still one extinguisher short of the Coast Guard requirements for their boat.

Improper fire extinguisher’s are what’s called a “voyage ending” item, and escorted to the closest safe harbor (not necessarily your home port) where you need to remedy the issue before continuing your voyage.  In this case the Coast Guard proposed returning them to their home port of Kirkland, however they had reached about the midway point between Kirkland and Lake Union.  After pointing this out to the Coast Guard, they ask the Coast Guard if they could continue to a moorage at Lake Union and would it be OK if they had a crew member meet them at the pier with a new fire extinguisher?

After a persuasive conversation, the Coast Guard agreed to let them continue to the pier at Lake Union with a Coast Guard escort.  A somewhat frantic cell phone call followed to one of the crew who was meeting them at Lake Union, to please leave early, buy a new Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher and bring it to the pier.  The crew member bought the fire extinguisher and was waiting for the boat and the Coast Guard when they pulled up to the pier.

The Coast Guard, impressed by the speed and dedication of the crew, captain and first mate, did not issue a ticket, and my friends went on to do well in the race that day.

A few words of wisdom, check the fire extinguishers in cool weather not just the middle of the summer.  Don’t flip attitude at a Boarding Officer.  Having a free Vessel Safety Check (VSC) is also a good idea or at least go over the list of required equipment  (ANSC-7012)  for your boat.  The Coast Guard Auxiliary and Power Squadron, give free VSC’s.  A VSC is not an enforcement action, if your boat does not pass the VSC, the Vessel Examiner gives you a list of the deficiencies, they  go over the list with you, and no record is kept of the deficiencies.  When you have corrected the deficiencies you give the vessel examiner a call and they come back to your boat and inspect your vessel  again.

A few personal thoughts on fire extinguishers, I buy larger dry chemical fire extinguishers than the Coast Guard requires for my boat, are refillable and have all metal valve parts, they cost a bit more than what I call “competitive bid” ones, I buy them from a company that only does fire extinguishers and fire suppression systems.  The fire extinguishers on my boat are a bit over 12 years old and doing fine, I check them myself on the boat several times during the boating season and have them serviced every other year by a fire extinguisher company and  they are hydrostatic pressure tested when required by state regulations, so the cost of a larger and higher quality extinguisher spread over several years is quite reasonable.

Remember, the state and federal standard are Minimums, I use the next size up extinguisher’s on my boat.  Place extinguishers so crew do not need to go through flames to get to an extinguisher, also place them in sleeping areas and at places like the helm.  I don’t like to hide them, some people don’t like looking at a fire extinguisher, you can make covers for them in designer fabrics if you don’t like red.

Every firefighter or retired firefighter I know that is a boat owner, has both larger fire extinguishers and more of them that the Coast Guard requires.

As one person explained to me, they want to reach a fire extinguisher within no more than  a step or so since there is no sidewalk on a boat you can stand on while waiting for the fire department to arrive.  Also, a fire caught while it is small, it is much easier to put out.

Wikipedia article on fire extinguishers and their history.

U.S. Fire Administration, a FEMA web site on what fire extinguisher you should buy as well as the care and feeding of your fire extinguisher with many more articles on a wide range of fire related articles.

Update:

A retired firefighter friend called after reading this article wondering if the lower temperatures would move the pressure gauge enough to bump the gauge into the red low temperature zone.  His question was based on inspecting 100’s of fire extinguishers both indoors and outside and he could not remember a mass failure of low pressure fire extinguishers that were located outside during the winter.

My curiosity raised, I took a fire extinguisher, taped a thermocouple hooked to a Fluke 52 Thermometer to the side of the fire extinguisher, put three layers of closed cell foam over the thermocouple and put the fire extinguisher in the freezer for several hours, then the refrigerator and finally allowed the fire extinguisher to warm back up to room temperature.

The pictures are below, it was tough to get the exact best angle to not have glare on the face of the gauge.

Net results, from room temperature to mid 30’s (F) temperature caused the gauge on the fire extinguisher moved down about the width of the “FULL” printing on the gauge, lowering the temperature to a bit below 10 degrees (F) moved the pointer to just above the red low temperature line.

Conclusion: If a fire extinguisher pressure was charged a bit low then low temperatures can cause the gauge to sink into the low pressure zone.  An incentive to look at the gauge when you buy a new fire extinguisher to make sure the pressure gauge is not charged on the low side and to have any recharging and inspection done by a reputable company.

Thanks for your interest in and support of boating safety.

Thanks also to Western Fire & Safety in Ballard (Seattle) for letting me take the pictures of the used fire extinguisher and answering a few questions about fire extinguishers.

– c / m –

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