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Training - How to spice up fire drills onboard

25 June 2020

Now that the Covid-19 lockdowns have been eased in Europe and some Caribbean yachting centres, most yachts are focused on returning to some type of “normality”. Whilst some boats might already be cruising, or due to depart in the next few days, others might not see such an immediate return to active yachting. 

There are two considerations to bear in mind. Globally, we have not seen an instant return to the pre-pandemic world as we knew it. The hospitality industry, of which we are a part, is in parlous straits, and no leading analysts are forecasting a full recovery in less than 18 to 24  months from now. International air travel continues to be restricted. St. Tropez with 50% capacity and social distancing in bars and cafes, with service staff wearing masks and gloves, might not feel like the old St. Tropez. The same dampening of destination ambience will apply all across the Mediterranean. So, we might experience some reduction in out-of-port cruising activity this summer. 

The other consideration is that the easings are tentative and come with a warning that a secondary spike in infection and mortality rates may mean a return to local or general lockdowns to try to contain the second wave. So some planning is advisable in case we might see more of the same lockdowns in the year ahead.

This does not have to be a glum prospect. There is an opportunity here to develop a culture of mentoring on board by encouraging the creative talents among crew members. The same creativity and artistic skills which make theme nights a charter success can be applied to training in disaster preparedness. To illustrate, while basic drills are fundamental to effective emergency responses, embodying some drill aspects into a theatrical scenario that could actually happen adds a new level of teamwork.

For example, fire drills tend to be repetitive and do not recreate the experience of the mandatory fire fighting courses. But a surprise themed drill can go a long way towards sharpening the edge of responders.  

How to run a surprise themed fire drill

One tried and proven example is for the captain to conspire with the chief engineer to set up a realistic morning fire drill for the crew. Here are the simple steps:

  • Captain and Engineer on standby to isolate and shut off power to all lighting, including emergency lighting, in the crew area.  

  • In the early morning darkness before their normal wake-up times, block all exits except for the emergency exit with chairs and set up strobe lights wrapped in red rags. On a couple of laptops have YouTube running with clips of burning buildings. 

  • Load up the toaster, burn the toast, call the chief on the radio to shut off power, and retire to a dark corner as the fire alarm sounds. 

  • As half-asleep and half-dressed figures emerge and smell burning, yell “Move! Move! Get out!”. 

  • The unreal lighting is disorientating. Is it real or a drill, but the captain is urging them to get out fast. Observe. Who are the quick thinkers? Who leads the way out? Who thinks to check all the cabins for anybody left behind?

  • When everybody reaches the assembly point the exercise is over. 

  • Later in the morning, conduct a debriefing to bring up lessons learned, and suggestions about ways to improve future fire drills.  For a change it will be the crew, not the captain, doing all the talking.  Endless variations can be played on this theme.

By giving crew (single or in pairs) the opportunity to create, write and direct any type of scenario which can be worked into routine drill schedules, it will help get further buy-in from them. They will become more capable and confident in their safety roles and will start to develop their own leadership skills. This example is intended to stimulate crew to produce their own scenarios so as to maintain a high level of interest and involvement in safety drills.

We will follow up next week with some ideas on preparing engaging first aid drills and preparing for annual audits/surveys, including specific chart exercises.

Rodney A. Hatch - Director for Deck Training

Rod hails from Southampton. His connection to the sea goes back to early memories of the city skyline being dominated by the last generation of the great trans-Atlantic liners, and when the only yachts on the River Hamble were wooden ones, sympathetic neighbours of one of the last wooden hulks from the Royal Navy's Napoleonic wars.

After graduating from Sheffield University, and prior to actually running away to sea, he was a Lecturer in Economics and Liberal Studies at South Bank Polytechnic, London. His yachting career and commercial sea time span over fifty years, and he is still active as a Relief Captain.

From its shores to its inland hills, Rod embraces the Mediterranean littoral, with special affection for the ancient magic of the Greek islands, the glories of Renaissance Italy, France for the historic ties with England, and every vineyard along the way.

Rod can be reached at

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