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    Last year’s Labor Day Conception boat fire in California, the devastating dock fire in Scottsboro, Alabama, and the recent dock fire in Seattle, Washington, are just several reminders of how quickly tragedy can strike on water.

    While all these fires are still under investigation, there are a few takeaways from these disasters.

    Personal Electronic Devices

    A possible factor in the Conception boat fire was the unsupervised charging of personal electronic devices with lithium ion batteries. Nearly every personal electronic device, from cell phones to e-cigs, use these highly efficient and very powerful forms of battery technology. But the trade-off is safety issues that have made headlines over the last few years, including stories of batteries self-igniting and causing fires.

    In 2016, Samsung suspended sales of its Galaxy Note 7and instituted an informal recall due to excessive heat in the recharge process causing explosions and starting fires. Similar complaints were made with the Apple’s iPhone 6 and 7 as well.

    In 2017, the FAA imposed limitations and guidelines on lithium batteries, allowed only as carry-on luggage with spares removed from travel bags and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin.

    From eye witness accounts, many of the passengers on the Conception had numerous electrical devices, cameras, cell phones, tablets, and underwater gear, all of which were powered by lithium ion batteries, all being recharged in one location unsupervised.  While it’s too soon to speculate, just shortly after the fire, the USCG issued a warning on the unsupervised charging of lithium ion batteries onboard vessels.

    Boat Heaters

    In Alabama, investigators are concentrating on one boat that may have been the cause of the boat dock fire. While not much more has been released, what is known is that there were several explosions from propane tanks that were on the boats, and that some of the boats cast loose, set other boats on fire.

    Some of those occupying the docks were permanent year-round tenants, using onboard heating on their vessels during the winter months.

    In the case of boat heating, the same practices used in portable home heating can be applied to boat heating. Following are a few safety tips and best practices for heating safety:

    • Owners of gas-powered boats should only use heaters with ignition protection, meaning that no sparks are produced when the heater is powered up.
    • Heaters should have an internal thermostat that causes automatic shut down if the thermostat fails and won’t allow the unit to overheat.
    • Winterize your boat to help eliminate the possibility of water lines freezing, which could lead to bilge heater failure.
    • If using an electric heater, be sure it is connected to a power supply recharger so the battery doesn’t die.
    • Electric heaters should be properly secured or have a no tip design.
    • Only use heaters with the UL label.
    • Keep anything flammable away from heaters.
    • Inspect all cords and connections before using a heater either on your boat or when using shore power.
    • Never leave a heater on unattended.

    Many older boats were never designed for the power draw that today’s personal electronics require. Here are a few tips for electrical safety:

    • Check your wiring and replace any that are frayed or appear damage.
    • Do not use wire nuts but approved marine connectors.
    • Have your marina or boat mechanic give it a seasonal once-over.

    Six Questions Marina Owners and Managers Should Consider
    Check your policies regarding heating, electrical, and propane/gas on boats.

    1. Do you have any specific documentation or sign-offs from your customers acknowledging these policies?
    2. Is it addressed in the slip rental contract?
    3. What training have your staff undergone?
    4. Do you perform regular drills? Weekly, monthly?
    5. How are you disseminating fire safety and awareness? Posters? Memos? Emails? Demonstrations?
    6. Do you offer any services to review tenant’s boats for fire hazards, wiring, etc., free or otherwise? Is it part of your slip rental contract, a seasonal inspection?

    One thing is certain – fighting a fire once started is very difficult, and the best safety measures to take are prevention.

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