SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Station bills – Know your job in an emergency

by Fred Mattera

During a recent simulated engine room fire drill, I observed a seasoned crewman, someone who has been engaged in safety drills for the last seven years, become impetuous and anxious instead of composed and thoughtful.

By doing things without serious thought, he made some simple but dangerous mistakes that, in a real-life situation, could have caused serious injury to the crew and even the loss of the vessel.  During debriefing following the drill, he admitted that he became so eager to deal with the simulated problem that he didn’t stick to the procedure plan.

The point here is to stress the importance of following and adhering to your vessel’s tailored emergency plan.


A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

So, let’s discuss the station bill, which spells out who is responsible for specific jobs in emergency situations and details instructions for doing those jobs.  My goal is to help the captain and crew develop an awareness of generally accepted procedures, which should increase their chances of effectively dealing with emergencies and surviving if they are faced with the dreaded prospect of abandoning ship.

Survival gear carried aboard fishing vessels varies greatly according to the size of the boat, its mode and area of operation, and the size of its crew.  The Coast Guard has established guidelines for different sizes and types of vessels.  It’s imperative that each captain and crewman is familiar with the survival gear carried upon his vessel, as well as the alarms and procedures used aboard that vessel in the event of an emergency.

There must be adequate survival gear for each crewman, and it must be maintained and stowed in a readily available area if trouble strikes without warning.  I’m talking both about personal equipment, such as each crewman’s personal flotation device (PFD) or immersion suit, and general equipment, such as the life raft, EPIRB, and flares.  The responsibility for ensuring that survival gear is ready for use at a moment’s notice thus falls upon not only the captain but each crewman as well.

In an emergency at sea, the survival of each individual depends upon his and his fellow crewmembers’ preparedness.  It also depends upon each crewman’s ability to remain calm and act quickly and effectively.  Panic only ensures catastrophe.

A captain, who managed to save himself and his crew when their vessel went down, once told me, “Now when I hire a crewman, I ask myself, is this someone I want to have around in a life raft?”


Station bill

The Coast Guard requires emergency instructions, outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (46 CFR 28.265), to be mounted in a conspicuous location on your vessel.

A good suggestion is to post them by the galley dining table where the crew naturally gathers.  This makes it easy to make clear and review each individual’s responsibilities in case of fire, flooding, man-overboard, and abandon-ship emergencies.

Your station bill should cover the following duties and instructions for:

  • Making a distress call;
  • Closing watertight doors, hatches, and valves;
  • Being sure that, in the event of an abandon-ship situation, the life raft is equipped with flares, water, EPIRB, handheld radio, medical supplies, and more;
  • Launching the life raft;
  • General preparation of other survival equipment, including immersion suits;
  • Firefighting; and
  • Man-overboard events.

The station bill also should describe the alarms or signals that will be used to summon the crew to their survival and fire stations so there will be no confusion should a critical situation arise.



Even aboard the most modern and self-sufficient fishing vessel, the possibility of a disabling mishap is a fact of nautical life.  Going to sea involves risk, and your safety depends on your ability to plan for and manage the potentially costly and even fatal problems that can arise.

Being prepared involves two things – training and practice.  The importance of training cannot be stressed enough.  Although experience is one of the most effective ways to learn skills, some skills are better learned in a controlled situation.  There is no room for mistakes in a real emergency.

And, once you and your crew have acquired those basic skills, it is important to practice them with the proper equipment.

Training sessions should cover the following:

  • Each crewman’s duties as listed on the station bill;
  • Vessel alarms and signals and what to do when they sound;
  • Donning an immersion suit and entering the water (aim for 60 seconds or less);
  • When and how to launch the life raft and precautions to be taken before, during, and after launch;
  • Boarding the life raft and righting an inverted raft;
  • The equipment in the life raft and how to use it;
  • How to survive in a life raft;
  • How to use the EPIRB and other signaling devices, including flares and mirrors;
  • The dangers of hypothermia and how to minimize its effects; and
  • How to use fire extinguishers.

Remember, “failing to plan for an emergency is the same as planning to fail when an emergency occurs.”