Local firefighters hone skills to fight boat blazes

Fighting fires on land has its risks, but tackling blazes on yachts, whether in the water or docked, presents its own challenges.

That's what more than a dozen Fort Lauderdale and Davie firefighters learned Tuesday during specialized marine firefighting training in Resolve Maritime Academy's 140-foot-long Gray Manatee simulator at Port Everglades.

In a controlled environment, instructors put firefighters through drills filled with live fire and smoke — all designed to simulate a burning boat.

Gray Manatee has an engine room, galley, catwalks and multiple watertight doors and hatches. It also has more than 20 compartments connected by horizontal and vertical passageways.


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The experience of descending stairs to fight a fire is typically a new one for land-based firefighters used to climbing ladders, said Tom Jones, Resolve's firefighting training manager.

A boat's fuel load is a key concern, as well as its stability if too much water is used. Plush fittings and fixtures aboard can burn differently than in a building, some letting off hazardous gases and thicker smoke, he said.

During the exercise, firefighters had to establish a water supply, evaluate the exterior and structure of the vessel, get briefed by a crew member about the situation onboard, locate the fire and formulate a plan to extinguish it, Jones said.

Fire department officials say this type of training is critical in Fort Lauderdale and other cities where recreational boating is popular and megayachts visit yearly for repairs and upgrades at local shipyards.

"Fires on yachts present their own hazards, especially in boat yards," said David DiPetrillo, a battalion operations chief for Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue and a program participant.

The training comes just weeks before the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which runs Oct. 31- Nov 4. The annual extravaganza, billed as the largest in-water boat show in the world, typically showcases hundreds of boats of varying sizes across six locations.

While boat fires account for fewer than 1 percent of the blazes fought each year in Fort Lauderdale, they can rapidly spread from vessel to vessel in marinas and repair yards, DiPetrillo said.

DiPetrillo's group of 16 is the second batch of South Florida firefighters to participate in the training, co-sponsored by insurance giant AIG, aimed at honing their skills to handle blazes in marinas, shipyards and boat basins. West Palm Beach firefighters went through the program about two years ago.

"Boats are increasing in size, growing in numbers and so are the complexities to fight fires aboard them," said Carl Lessard, a yacht loss prevention specialist in AIG's private client group who asked Resolve to create the training program.

"The feedback from West Palm Beach was exceptional," said Lessard. "It helped them change the way they think about yacht fires, especially when the [Palm Beach International] boat show is in town." Those firefighters developed a specific game plan and brought in specialized equipment to prepare for incidents.

For Davie firefighters, who have responsibility for two marinas along the Marina Mile section of State Road 84, the training is invaluable.

"We've had multiple yacht and boat fires, so it's critical for us to know how to operate on vessels like these,and do so safely," Davie battalion training chief Joe Rivero said. "It's different from structural fires and high risk."

asatchell@tribune.com, 954-356-4209 or Twitter@TheSatchreport.