Fire Protection of Dry Dock Storage Facilities

With the ever-increasing competitive nature of dry boat dock facilities, the industry seeks to attract customers and increase their storage capacity by building larger and more sophisticated storage facilities. This drive to larger and taller facilities is further driven by the increasing premium cost of property in areas adjacent to the water. It is now not unheard of to find facilities reaching heights up to 60 to 70 feet – and beyond – housing hundreds of recreational boats as large as 50 feet in length. Modern developments and improvements in material handling equipment have made all of this possible, while still meeting the convenience demand of the customer to their boat, ensuring it’s available and ready for a day on the water with limited notice.

Additionally, modern facilities provide the desired protection for the boats and weathering, and in some cases, devastating events such as the winds and storm surges of a hurricane. While all of these items tend to form the primary basis for the customer’s decision-making in selecting their accommodations for their boat, there is an underlying expectation and obligation that the facility will always provide an appropriate level of protection for the storage boats against the ravages of a fire. Recent events such as the dry dock facility fire at the Toledo Beach Marina in LaSalle, MI on the shores of Lake Erie make the need for such protection all too clear. This event resulted in a total loss of the facility and its contents.

Fire Protection Features
In recognition of the need for protection, the adopted building and fire codes, generally provide mandates for the installation of various features of fire protection within such facilities. These might include, but are not limited to, fire alarms, fire sprinklers, standpipes, fire pumps, fire extinguishers, fire rated construction, and means of egress features, with the extent of these features being based on such things as the building size and height, construction type, number of stories, and occupant load.

While not generally considered directly by many prospective tenants as a deciding factor in their choice of boat storage selection, it is imperative that we uphold the obligation to install appropriate fire protection features and maintain these features in an operable condition over the life of the facility. To that end, there are several applicable codes and standards that might dictate protection features. The primary of which would include NFPA 303, Fire Protection for Marinas and Boatyards.

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One of those designated protection features mandated for facilities over 5,000 square feet or having the multi-level rack storage of boats, must be provided with an approved fire extinguishing system. The most common approach is to utilize a water-based fire protection feature such as an automatic fire sprinkler system designed in accordance with NFPA 13. In fact the provisions of NFPA 303 provide some guidance to direct that the protection be based on the storage of a “Group A Plastic” and that the horizontal projection of the boat be considered similar to a “solid shelf” in a rack structure for purposes of ensuring proper delivery of water.

While this process might seem appropriate and straightforward, it makes a critical assumption that a storage boat will burn in the same manner as the typical rack storage of materials anticipated in the development of the criteria established in NFPA 13. The fire hazard and burning potential associated with a stored boat can vary significantly from that associated with the standard test commodities used to establish such. The construction of a typical boat using RFP and associated core materials of wood or foam differ, along with a variety of interior appointments within the vessel including upholstery, canvas, carpeting, cushions, and electronics all add to the fuel load and burning potential. Even more so, each boat will include a quantity of stored fuel, the type and quantity of which will vary based on the size of the boat. To make matters worse, many of these fuel tanks are constructed of plastic, making it even more vulnerable to attack and rupture during a fire exposure.

The open nature of many boats tend to result in the collection of water from an operating fire sprinkler giving rise to concern that such water will not cascade to lower levels where the fire might be occurring, which can result in diminished performance of such systems. Additionally, the collection of water within a boat will result in an increased load on the structure that must be considered to avoid potential collapse.

Control Versus Extinguishment
Finally, the common design of automatic fire sprinkler systems provides for the control of a fire, but it is not intended to necessarily provide for complete extinguishment of a fire. The nature of many boats includes a number of enclosed cabin spaces that can make this even more pronounced. The activity of fire extinguishment is left to arriving fire department personnel. While this activity can be fairly straightforward where the remaining fire is located such that the arriving personnel can make a direct discharge of water via an active hose line and nozzle to the seat of a fire, the location of a burning boat in the upper levels of a larger rack storage structure can prove to be exceedingly difficult.

All too often, the design of the systems takes a very simplified approach of trying to shoehorn specific design criteria for the sprinkler system from the criteria in NFPA 13 and hope that it works. Rather than rely on such blind faith, due consideration must be given to ensuring the actual design matches with the performance objectives of final extinguishment of the fire. This might require the consideration of alternative system designs including foam, cleaning agents, water mist, etc.

In order for boat storage facilities to maintain both a satisfied customer base and efficient operations, they must always be mindful of providing the necessary protection against potential fire loss. Protecting these valuable assets is not only a mandate of the fire codes, but a critical, underlying expectation of the customer.

Tracey Bellamy, Chief Engineering Officer at Telgian Engineering & Consulting, has more than 30 years of experience in the fire protection industry as a Fire Protection Engineer, Certified Fire Protection Specialist, and Certified Water-Based System Professional. In addition, Bellamy is a licensed Professional Engineer (49 US states, DC and Guam) and he serves on several National Fire Protection (NFPA) technical and correlating committees. These include NFPA 11, 13, 15, 16, 25, 30, 30B, 101 and 5000 (building code). In addition to his NFPA membership, he is also a member of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE).