Obviously, it is better to avoid activities on board that could result in a fire occurring in the first place – careless use of smoking materials and cooking activities are 2 of the main causes of fires. But, even if you are the most careful of people it has to be recognised that fires do occur and because of the confined space in a boat the consequences of even a small fire can result in more serious injury to the occupants than would probably be the case if the same fire occurred in your own home.

One or more smoke alarms carefully sited and maintained would almost certainly reduce the consequences of a fire should it occur as they can warn you very quickly to allow you to deal with it, if this is feasible, or for you to make your escape, hopefully unharmed.

Boats are full of combustible materials and highly flammable fuels and this means that a fire can develop quickly and spread rapidly, damaging property and injuring, or worse still killing people. But, the real killers are the smoke and toxic fumes which can overcome you very quickly. Remember, you are most at risk when you are asleep so you should ensure that the alarm is sufficiently loud in the sleeping quarters in order that it will wake you as quickly as possible. If it is not the chances of you waking from the smell or sound of the fire are very remote – the smoke will probably send you into a deeper sleep rather than wake you!

If there is a fire, a reliable, well sited and maintained smoke alarm will warn you and your family early enough for you to escape. They are not expensive and are readily available. In addition, you can easily fit and maintain them yourself.

You should always choose an alarm that has been 3rd Party tested to the BS EN 14604 smoke alarm standard and carries a certification mark from a recognised testing house such as BSI, LPCB or VDS.

There are 2 main types of smoke alarms, optical and ionisation:

•    The ionisation type is very responsive to fast flaming fires and while this could be thought a good thing as it may respond more quickly, this makes it likely to false alarm from cooking activities and so become a serious irritation that could result in it being disconnected – far from an ideal situation!
•     Consequently, the optical type is likely to be the better bet in the confined spaces of a boat. This type are more effective at detecting slow burning fire such as smouldering wood, burning foam-filled furniture, overheated wiring etc. Optical alarms are more expensive than ionisation types but they are less likely to be affected by the fumes associated with cooking.
•    Fitting both types would probably give you better coverage but if you do this ensure that the ionisation model is sited well away from the galley.

Heat alarms are available and you may be tempted to install these as they are almost immune from false alarms. They are also very slow to respond to a fire requiring a high level of heat before they will activate. Heat alarms are not considered suitable for installation in boats.

Boat fire

There are also different power supply types available:

•    Standard battery types use PP3 9v batteries that have to be replaced at regular intervals. Unfortunately, a number of people die each year in fires because the battery in one of these has been removed or has become depleted and not replaced. Because of this it is recommended that alarms with long-life batteries are installed.
•    Long-life or 10 year battery alarms are fitted with batteries that are sealed-in and should last the life of the alarm – 10 years. These are more expensive than the standard battery alarms but there is no need (or cost) of battery replacement.
•    Mains powered alarms are available but they are probably not suitable for most craft as they require a permanent mains supply and must be installed by an electrician.

There are other features available with some alarms:

•    A Hush or Silence button is a good feature to have as this will allow you to silence a false alarm without having to remove the battery – or the alarm!
•    If you are installing more than one alarm you should consider interconnecting the alarms so that if one sounds the other will sound as well. Interconnection can be done running bell wire between the alarms or by radio-links (no wiring required). Both of these options will mean the alarms will be more expensive but, they will give you better protection and an earlier warning compared to alarms that are not interconnected.

You must look after your smoke alarms if you want to be sure they will operate when needed. They are not ‘fit and forget’ items. Following the simple steps below will help to ensure your alarm remains effective:

•    Press the test button on each alarm for a few seconds (check that any interconnected alarms also sound) as part of your boarding routine. If you live aboard or stay for a prolonged period you should get into the habit of testing the alarm/s every week.
•    If the alarm starts to beep at regular intervals (approx. 1 minute apart) check this out. It is probably a depleted battery in which case you should put a new one in as soon as possible.
•    At least twice a year you should use the narrow nozzle of a vacuum cleaner to gently remove dust from the alarm – if the case opens vacuum inside. If not, use it around the slots in the side of the alarm.
•    If when checking your alarm you see damage or furring of the battery or battery terminals you should replace the complete alarm.

By Neil Perdell, Aico

Further information on siting and alarm selection can be found in the FIA Fact File 70

Fact File 70 Smoke Alarms for Boats