Fire extinguishers and Coast Guard approval

To the editor:

In your recent article on fire extinguishers (“Fighting fire,” Issue 119, Jan./Feb. 2002), Chuck Husick said that a fire extinguisher required to be aboard your boat by Coast Guard regulations must be Coast Guard-approved. This is a statement that can and should be disputed, since better and more effective fire extinguishers are available on the market that are not Coast Guard-approved. This is not the fault of the Coast Guard, but is the result of manufacturers not applying for the Coast Guard imprimatur.

As a matter of policy, the Coast Guard has relinquished much of its oversight on U.S.-flag vessels and is concentrating on its role as the port state authority in the United States. For example, leading classification societies, such as the American Bureau of Shipping, Det Norske Veritas, Lloyd’s Register and Germanischer Lloyd, all have authority from the Coast Guard to inspect U.S.-flag vessels and issue flag-state certificates on behalf of the United States. This is called the alternative compliance program and is a major departure from previous practice. Likewise, the Coast Guard now accepts Safety of Life at Sea-approved safety equipment and equipment tested by Underwriters’ Laboratories and other internationally recognized testing laboratories. This change is very beneficial because, for economic reasons, leading manufactures were not applying for Coast Guard approval, leaving the U.S. Merchant Marine to contend with inferior and out-of-date equipment, which also usually was relatively very expensive.

A word on SOLAS approval. There really is no such thing. What SOLAS-approved means is that some national maritime authority like the Coast Guard has made sure that the equipment meets SOLAS requirements. SOLAS does not in all cases sufficiently define the requirements. An example being embarkation ladders, where the Coast Guard has filled the SOLAS vacuum with its own requirements.

A recreational boat is an uninspected vessel that must meet certain requirements, such as navigation lights. I prefer to meet the Coast Guard requirement for fire extinguishers with the aqueous foam type in a seamless, coated aluminum container, like Kidde’s FireOut. This compact extinguisher is UL 8A,70B:C and is especially valuable for fighting a class-B fire in your engine space. For electrical fires, the label says 230 volts maximum. I have seen reviews on this product that say it is quite an advance in firefighting technology, but can’t be fitted on your boat because it is not Coast Guard-approved. This is not the case, since it is UL-approved. Although some Coast Guard Marine Safety Inspectors will dispute this position, I believe it is supported by the applicable regulations. The bottom line is that safety should not suffer for lack of the Coast Guard seal of approval, when UL has given the fire extinguisher a rating that indicates it is superior to the Coast Guard-approved extinguishers commonly used on recreational boats.

John P. Love is a member of the admiralty bar, a retired naval reserve officer and a commercial ship owner and operator. He has a Grand Banks 42 at Norwalk Yacht Club on Long Island Sound.

Chuck Husick responds:

Thank you for your informative and thoughtful letter about fire extinguishers for use on uninspected vessels. You are quite correct in stating that some fire extinguishers that do not have Coast Guard approval may be superior to many approved units. You are also correct in stating that the Coast Guard has been forced to devote its attentions to areas other than inspection of pleasure boats. However, when the Coast Guard boards a vessel for any reason, they may well check for the presence of required safety equipment, including fire extinguishers. The typical Coast Guard boarding party will not have much interest in debating the value of various types of safety equipment; in general, they want to be satisfied that all the required gear is on board.

There is no regulation against carrying additional equipment, regardless of its state of certification by the Coast Guard or anyone else for that matter. So long as you have the basic minimum, you will have satisfied the Coast Guard’s interest. The same applies to other marine law enforcement agencies. In no case would I recommend entering into a debate with one of these gentlemen about the degree to which a boat’s equipment complies with the regulations as they understand them. My approach is to carry what is required and add whatever I believe will enhance the safety of my vessel and crew.

By Ocean Navigator