The Coast Guard does not fight fires. That is the official policy—at least for fires that break out on board vessels that do not fly a Coast Guard ensign. Instead, the service provides “assistance as available” and serves as “an important resource” to firefighting organizations through its development of written contingency plans for each major port.”1 Yet Coast Guard boats and cutters respond annually to hundreds of at-sea and waterfront fires involving private, commercial, and public property, so many that such cases rank high among the reasons for search-and-rescue sorties.
Considering the history of the Coast Guard, which from its formation until the late 1970s fielded purpose-built fireboats to combat fires at ports nationwide, how did the nation’s lead maritime responder devolve into having only a minimalist regulatory and planning role in regard to fire? And after a series of deadly and devastating marine fires in recent memory, should firefighting become a renewed priority for the service?
1. National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 1925, “Standard on Marine Fire-Fighting Vessels.”
2. National Transportation Safety Board, “Fire Aboard Small Passenger Vessel Conception, Investigation Details.”
3. Anish, “A Guide to Fire Pumps on Ships,” Marine Insight, 26 July 2021. Passenger ships of more than 1,000 gross tons must carry a minimum of one independently powered emergency pump capable of delivering at least 110 gallons/minute over a horizontal throw of more than 40 feet.
4. U.S. Fire Administration, Special Report: Fireboats: Then and Now (Department of Homeland Security, May 2003).
5. City News Service, “Families of 34 Victims Killed in Deadly Conception Boat Fire Sue Coast Guard in Los Angeles,” Fox11, 2 September 2021.
6. gCaptain, “U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Admits to Not ‘Aggressively Enforcing’ Firefighting Rules,” 25 May 2017.
7. U.S. Coast Guard, “MSU Savannah Area Contingency Plan,” revised June 2016.
8. “Photos: USCG Cutter Waesche Suffers Stack Fire at Sea,” The Maritime Executive, 23 September 2020.