Causes of Fires and Alarm Monitoring for Navy Ships

By Andrew Erickson

July 23, 2023

Fire alarm monitoring is an important (but often overlooked!) consideration for naval vessels. In order to ensure the safety of personnel and equipment, it is essential that all fire alarms are monitored accurately and responded to promptly.

But how do you do that effectively? Let's look deeper into the problem and what the right solution looks like.

The GAO warns that alarm monitoring improvements are needed

Fires on naval vessels have been a longstanding concern, and this issue has been further highlighted by recent reports and warnings issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO has been tracking and reporting on the issue of fires on naval ships that are undergoing maintenance. Since 2008, such fires have caused over $4 billion in damages and led to the loss of two ships. The report highlights how naval ships undergoing maintenance face a high risk of fire due to the fact that repairs often involve sparks or welding - especially in the confined spaces that are common on board a ship.

The GAO report also makes recommendations on how the Navy should step up its efforts to prevent ship fires during maintenance, suggesting that more work needs to be done in terms of learning from past incidents and improving existing processes.

In addition to the financial implications, these fires also contribute to a growing backlog in ship maintenance. The Navy's ship maintenance backlog has reportedly grown to $1.8 billion, with poor infrastructure in public shipyards being a contributing factor.

Major fire incidents have already happened

All of this concern isn't just theoretical from the GAO, either.

An actual major fire incident on a U.S Navy ship is the one that occurred on the Bonhomme Richard in July 2020. The ship was in the midst of a two-year, $250 million renovation when a fire broke out on the lower vehicle deck. The fire resulted in extensive damage and eventually led to the decommissioning of the ship.

Incidents like this one underscore the importance of fire alarm monitoring and the need for robust safety measures on naval vessels, especially those undergoing maintenance work. Furthermore, they highlight the need for improvements in reporting and learning from such incidents to prevent them from recurring in the future.

One big source of naval fires is the common "hot work" on docked ships

"Hot work" is a term used to describe various operations involving open flames or producing heat and/or sparks. This includes welding, brazing, cutting, soldering, drilling, grinding, and any other similar operations. These activities are common in shipyards, as they are in many other industries.

The improper use of hot work equipment or failure to follow proper safety protocols can lead to serious accidents, including fires and explosions. The intense heat generated by hot work can ignite flammable materials present in the workspace.

Furthermore, sparks produced during hot work can travel long distances and ignite combustible materials not in the immediate area of the work. This increases the likelihood that a fire will go unnoticed by humans on the ship until it gets out of hand.

Hot work led to the fire on the previously mentioned USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship. As I mentioned, this damage led directly to its eventual decommissioning.

Another incident happened in 2012, where a welder’s torch sparked a fire aboard the submarine USS Miami, resulting in $700 million in damages and the ultimate decision to scrap rather than repair the vessel.

How can fires from hot work be detected or prevented entirely?

To mitigate the risks associated with hot work, it's crucial to follow established safety protocols. Here are some recommendations:

  • Training: Workers should be properly trained in hot work procedures and safety precautions. This includes understanding the characteristics of the equipment they are using and the hazards associated with their work.
  • Work Area Inspection: Before beginning any hot work, the work area should be thoroughly inspected to identify and remove any potential fire hazards. This includes checking for flammable materials within 35 feet of the work area.
  • Fire Watch and/or Automated Alarm Monitoring: A trained fire watch should be posted to monitor the work area for fires during hot work operations and for at least 30 minutes after work is completed. There is also the option to used an automated alarm monitoring system to enhance the overall fire protection.
  • Use of Protective Equipment: Workers should use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as fire-resistant clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Hot Work Permit: A hot work permit system should be implemented to ensure that all safety precautions have been taken before work begins. The permit should be issued by a competent authority and should specify the precautions to be taken.

By following these guidelines, businesses can significantly reduce the risk of accidents related to hot work, protecting their workers, property, and the environment.

What is the basic architecture of a fire alarm monitoring system for naval vessels?

Of course, hot work is only one possible cause of a fire on a naval vessel. No matter how your fire may start, you're responsible for monitoring and responding at all times.

Fire alarm systems on naval vessels are typically designed with a central control panel connected to several sensors located throughout the ship. These sensors detect smoke or rising temperatures in areas. They are usually installed in areas that may be at risk of fire, like the engine room, galley, and fuel storage spaces.

When a sensor ("initiating device") detects smoke or heat, it sends an alert to the control panel which then triggers an alarm. The alarm can be visual — such as bright flashing lights — or audible — such as sirens or bells. The crew, maintenance workers, or other personnel can then respond to the alert and take appropriate action.

The control panel may also be connected to fire suppression systems, such as sprinkler systems, that are designed to help contain and extinguish fires. These systems can be triggered manually or automatically.

It's important to remember that, for many ships, periods of maintenance means that many ship systems are turned down. When that happens, there's still a risk of fire during maintenance, especially if hot work is involved. To protect workers on the ship, a standalone system like the CASCON is needed.

Speak to Digitize about your project - whether you need monitoring equipment for yourself or your customer

If you're responsible for fire safety on naval vessels, the engineers at Digitize are ready to help you now.

If you provide service to navy clients, contact Digitize now to learn how you can get all the benefits of becoming a distributor.

Call a Digitize engineer now at 1-800-693-0351 or email

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson

Andrew Erickson is an Application Engineer at DPS Telecom, a manufacturer of semi-custom remote alarm monitoring systems based in Fresno, California. Andrew brings more than 17 years of experience building site monitoring solutions, developing intuitive user interfaces and documentation, and...Read More