Safety Message from PADI: Batteries, Power and Charging Considerations on Board Dive Boats
There is a rising prevalence of battery-powered devices being used in diving situations: smartphones, underwater propulsion vehicles, computers, cameras, strobes, drones and other personal equipment.
Following recent boating-related tragedies, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) have recommended that owners, operators and masters of passenger vessels consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords due to an increased risk of fire. This fire risk also extends to land-based dive operations, especially when charging batteries in hotel and designated camera rooms.
While this message cannot cover every eventuality, PADI® and the dive community would like to remind divers (and all boaters) of important safety recommendations for preventing and being prepared for an onboard fire, and remind all of the need for fire safety awareness in all situations.
Boat fires can be especially violent, progress rapidly, create a significant amount of toxic smoke, and be deadly for those aboard asleep, unaware and/or with limited escape options. General boat fire safety requirements vary with vessel size, location, type, age and regional regulations. Listen closely to crew safety briefings and follow their instructions specifically. If you’re unsure about something, ask for clarification.
- After the safety briefing, with respect to fire safety on most vessels you should know:
- Where to find and how to use all fire extinguishers, fire alarms, lifeboats/rafts and personal flotation devices (PFDs).
- How to quickly alert all hands in case of fire or other emergency.
- How to radio/call for help from local authorities if the crew is unable to do so.
- The location of all exits from below decks. If berthing (sleeping aboard), there should be at least two ways out. Personally, determine the escape hatch can be removed and that you can get through it.
- Your primary and alternate escape routes if a fire occurs anywhere onboard, including how to obtain a PFD because you may have to go in the water.
- If berthing, ensure there are operational smoke detectors, CO monitors and other regulation-required safety equipment in all berthing areas.
- If so briefed, know where to turn off power to any potential electrical fire source, e.g. charging stations, stoves, ovens, dryers.
- Where to go and what you’re expected to do in the event of a fire alarm/alert.
- Stow equipment and personal items away from fire sources, primary and emergency exits, electrical panels, fire alarms and fire extinguishers. Keep these unblocked, visible and accessible at all times.
- Never use anything involving open flame (including smoking materials) below deck.
- Always get crew permission before using high heat tools (e.g. soldering iron) anywhere onboard. If you suspect fire, or if you suspect for any reason that something is burning, immediately raise the alarm, alert all hands and follow crew instructions.
- If berthing, someone should be on watch and routinely monitoring all areas of the vessel.
Charging, Batteries, Power Strips and Electronics
Although rechargeable electronics have an impressive safety record, their growing utility and popularity means dozens can be present and charging on a passenger vessel at any time. This number, combined with the limited circuit capacity of many vessels and the abundance of flammable materials, makes onboard electronics use and battery charging, in particular, an increasing fire concern.
- Charge only in areas designated by the crew in a dry place and away from flammables. On many vessels, this requirement may include use and storage of your cell phone and/or other personal devices.
- Use only manufacturer-designated chargers for each device and follow all instructions. Pay attention to battery groups (age, state of charge) and input power requirements (the voltage fluctuation common to many boat generators may be an issue).
- Do not leave charging batteries or devices unmonitored.
- Remove batteries from chargers as soon as they’re charged and disconnect the charger from the power source. Allow batteries to cool before charging and before use after charging.
- Store batteries as specified by the manufacturer. Don’t store batteries in a charger, and use the contact cover to prevent an accidental battery short, which can cause a fire.
- During charging and storage, use a Lipo Bag or another suitable protective container as practical.
- Immediately disconnect any battery/device and its charger from the power source if it becomes abnormally hot, emits a smell, swells or does anything else unusual. Similarly, do not charge or use a battery that’s been wet or may have impact damage. Do not use these damaged batteries again and keep them in a fire-safe location until they can be disposed of properly at an appropriate facility ashore.
- Do not overload circuits by charging too many devices at once because doing so can create a fire hazard within the boat’s electrical system. Take turns charging small groups of devices and strictly adhere to limits established by the crew. Never “gang load” by plugging power strips into other power strips.
- Confirm the use of power strips and extension cords with the crew before use. If berthing requires a medical device (e.g. CPAP), confirm you can use it with the crew before departure.
In Case of Fire
When prevention procedures are followed closely, the risk of a boat fire is actually very small. However, there is always some risk you must accept and for which you should be prepared. If there is a fire:
- Raise the alarm and alert all hands immediately.
- Exit as planned and as prebriefed by the crew. Follow all crew instructions.
- If the fire appears controllable, if you are not in a confined area where smoke can be a deadly hazard, if you have the ability (e.g. fire extinguisher at hand) and if doing so is within what the crew briefs, attempt to extinguish the fire. However, do not hesitate to evacuate – boat fires are fast and deadly. If in doubt, get out.
- If berthing, as much as practical, sleep in clothes you can wear during an evacuation – you may not have time to get dressed. If acceptable to the crew, an option may be to have suitable garments staged where you can take them as you leave the vessel in an emergency.
For all of us who use battery-powered devices, fire concern extends to any location where batteries are being charged, including spaces in hotels, at land-based dive resorts and inside designated camera rooms.
Safety is a culture and it’s everyone’s responsibility. Pay attention, be proactive and stay safe.