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NTSB Investigation Into Fishing Vessel Fire Highlights the Importance of Personal Locator Beacons

NordRubicon rescue boat with Blue Dragon liferaft in tow. Credit: NordRubicon via NTSB

NTSB Investigation Into Fishing Vessel Fire Highlights the Importance of Personal Locator Beacons

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 4663
September 9, 2022

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week released its report for its investigation of the November 10, 2021, fire aboard the fishing vessel Blue Dragon.

No injuries or fatalities were reported in connection with the fire, but the incident resulted in more than $500,000 in damages to the vessel.

The Blue Dragon was underway in the North Pacific Ocean conducting longline fishing operations when the vessel caught fire. The six crewmembers and a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) observer unsuccessfully attempted to fight the fire and were forced to abandon ship to be rescued by a Good Samaritan vessel. The Blue Dragon was later towed to San Pedro, California.

The Blue Dragon departed Honolulu, Hawaii, to fish for swordfish and tuna on October 25, 2021. Weeks later, on Nov. 9, the NMFS observer discovered a fire in the wheelhouse under the console while the crew were preparing to retrieve fishing gear. While the crew was attempting to fight the fire, the NMFS observer and a deckhand retrieved the 10-person life raft and the vessel’s EPIRB from above the wheelhouse. The NMFS observer used his satellite emergency notification device (SEND) to send an SOS along with a text that said “fire.” He also manually activated the vessel’s EPIRB and his personal locator beacon.

NTSB concluded that the actions of the observer and deckhand contributed to the survival of the crew by retrieving the EPIRB and life raft before they caught fire. The observer’s activation of the vessel’s EPIRB and use of his NMFS-issued personal emergency communications equipment also contributed to the crew’s timely rescue, since the equipment transmitted the crew’s location.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire aboard the Blue Dragon was from an unknown source, likely electrical in nature, which ignited the wooden wheelhouse console. Contributing to the extent of the fire damage was the substantial use of combustible materials in the joinery, outfitting, and furnishings in the wheelhouse and accommodation spaces.

The NTSB previously issued a safety recommendation to the U.S. Coast Guard to require the use of personal locator beacons to enhance chances of survival following the sinking of the cargo vessel El Faro in 2015 with the loss of all 33 crewmembers. NTSB reiterated the recommendation after the fishing vessel Scandies Rose sank off Sutwik Island, Alaska in 2019. Two of the vessel’s crewmembers were rescued; the other five crewmembers were never found.

NTSB concluded that personal locator beacons would aid in search and rescue operations by providing continuously updated and correct coordinates of crewmembers’ locations. The recommendation remains open.

Improving fishing vessel safety remains a priority for the NTSB and it is an issue on the NTSB’s 2021-2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. The NTSB advocates for new standards to address—and periodically reassess—intact stability, subdivision, and watertight integrity in commercial fishing vessels up to 79 feet long as well as personal locator beacons for crew.

NTSB identified two lessons learned from this investigation:

  • Substandard electrical installation and outfitting—including bare wires, unsecured wire nuts, overloaded circuits, loose wiring, and household wiring not designed for marine use—is a common cause of shipboard/vessel electrical fires. Additionally, batteries have been identified as ignition sources of fires in multiple modes of transportation. Vessel operators should ensure electrical systems are adequately designed, installed, and maintained in accordance with established marine standards to prevent fires.
  • Personal locator beacons helped validate the position of the vessel’s emergency position indicating radio beacon, and a SEND helped responders identify the nature of the emergency. Vessel owners and operators can enhance the safety of their crews by equipping their vessels and crews with these additional satellite technologies to supplement EPIRBs.

The accident investigation is detailed in Marine Investigation Report 22/20.

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