Smoke Alarms and Live-Aboard Boats -Early Detection is Key

When the air temperatures start dropping in the fall, many live-aboard boaters and cruising boats (including sailboats with cabins) turn up the heat and spend more time inside.  But many of these boats are not equipped with smoke alarms.  Early detection has proven to save lives in homes and RV’s, so why are smoke alarms rarely found in boat cabin spaces?  They’re currently not required.  However, the Oregon State Marine Board encourages owners to consider purchasing and installing a reliable smoke alarm because there’s a risk of fire on boats and fires can happen.

Portland Fire Boat

A fire boat from Portland Fire and Rescue

While not required for recreational boats, the Coast Guard Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 46 guidelines requires that smoke alarms be installed in the sleeping compartments of small inspected passenger vessels.  An RV rated smoke alarm (label reads UL 217 RV) is approved for use on cruising boats.  Unlike the smoke alarms used in homes, the RV-rated alarms must withstand higher temperature variations, vibrations, humidity, and mild saltwater exposure.  The RV-rated smoke alarm is similarly recommended for use on recreational boats by the National Fire Protection Association.  However, due to the extreme environments in some areas, experts recommend regular inspections and a replacement cycle roughly every five years.

Live-aboard boats and cruising boats have a variety of potential fire dangers, more than a typical home.  Pleasure boats have a high fire load in the form of combustible fuel storage that supplies multiple onboard devices, and AC and DC electrical systems (which are subject to regular moisture that causes corrosion, as well as vibration and jarring as part of the normal use).  A boat’s construction materials are extremely combustible, as are interior furnishings.  According to BoatU.S., 55% of boat fires are electrical in nature and will start in a smoldering state.  Propulsion, fuel, engine and exhaust problems, as well as unattended cooking, careless smoking, heating devices, and other appliances, are also among the causes.  In all of these cases, early detection of smoke can be the key to preventing a fire or stopping it in the early stages.

Many people have smoke alarms in their homes and RV’s, so why not a boat?  This simple device can save lives, protect neighboring boats, docks or structures if the boat is kept at a moorage.  A smoke alarm is the cheapest insurance you can buy for your on-the-water home or pleasure craft.

For more information about the Marine Board and other required equipment, visit

Information about fire extinguishers:


Other Resources:

Boat Fires -Seaworthy Magazine

Causes of Boat Fires -BoatU.S. Magazine

Portland Crews Extinguish Two Boat Fires on Columbia River

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