Skip to main content

Setting boats ablaze in the name of safety

Daniel K. Rutherford has spent 30 years as a certified marine investigator, looking into fires, explosions, sinkings, boat disappearances. His job is to determine the cause of boat casualties and he investigates about 150 claims a year.

Image placeholder title

“Most are accidental, many from electrical causes,” says Rutherford, president of Ocean Marine Specialties in West Cape May, N.J. “But with this economy, there has been an uptick in suspicious fires.”

Rutherford is a founding member of the International Association of Marine Investigators, which has about 1,200 members worldwide. The parties in an investigation are varied — law enforcement, private and public fire investigators, surveyors, insurance investigators — so one of the group’s goals is to create a uniform method of examining cases. Earlier this year Rutherford and a team of association members organized a fire investigation course in Sayreville, N.J.

Organizers burned 10 donated boats — some damaged, others derelicts — under scenarios that included radiant heat damage, an electrical wiring harness fire and an exhaust fire. A Dufour 27 was the platform for a simulated propane explosion.

“That was the most fun of all,” Rutherford says.

Each was recorded on infrared and HD video. About 80 association members then attended the course to investigate the staged fires.

“Normally we wouldn’t have that many at once,” Rutherford says. BoatUS, one of Rutherford’s major clients, donated six boats — courtesy of Tropical Storm Irene — ranging from a 20-foot center console to a 42-foot sailboat. Another client, Bill Lockwood of Lockwood Boat Works in South Amboy, N.J., donated four derelicts that were taking up space at his yard.

Certified marine investigators use four classifications for vessel fires: natural, incendiary, accidental and undetermined. The event offered a chance to look into a variety of boat fires in a controlled environment. “It is rare to have the opportunity to observe a fire from beginning to end, observe the color of smoke, watch the venting patterns and how fire moves through the enclosed spaces of a boat,” says private investigator Todd Schwede, of Todd & Associates in San Diego, who co-organized the event.

“One thing we all noticed was how quickly the fires went from small to out of control. It was literally just a couple of minutes,” Rutherford says. “[With a fire] in your home or in a public place, there’s a good chance you can exit the building and be safe. On a boat, it’s either fight the fire successfully or jump overboard. There’s not a lot of in-between.”

In a simulated engine fire, the instructors watched for several minutes while the enclosed engine room smoldered. Then, as might happen in this situation, the hatch was opened to douse the space with a fire extinguisher. “As soon as we opened the hatch, the fire quickly grew out of control,” Rutherford says. “Fires burn fast and burn hot, so unless you can suppress the fire in its infancy, it’s going to get out of control fast. à The fires progress much more quickly than even we expected.”

Schwede, whose office averages 320 to 360 claims a year, installed the cameras on and around each boat. “The infrared camera illustrates the fire propagation and spread inside a cabin, based on temperatures,” Schwede says. “The other cameras were strategically placed, depending on the fire, to observe the initiation area, how a cabin fire or engine room fire spreads from its origin and subsequently propagates, based on the fuel load, wind direction and other factors.”

Each team had at least one specialist from law enforcement, fire investigation, surveying and insurance.

Rutherford says the seminar was for professionals, but its lessons should not be lost on boaters. “Sinkings are one thing, but they’re generally not sudden, giving you some time to prepare to abandon the vessel safely,” he says. “With a fire, it’s immediate and your reaction must be immediate.”

Rutherford says his vocation has shaped his perspective on boating safety. “Virtually all vessels are under-equipped to handle an on-board fire, regardless of whether or not they meet Coast Guard standards,” he says. “We are placing more and more electrical equipment in small spaces with limited ventilation, often in a moist and saltwater environment that promotes corrosion.”

He says he would like to see marinas, yacht clubs, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadrons offer more workshops and seminars on boat fires.

See related articles:

- Understanding boat fires

- Use the right extinguisher

October 2012 issue.