Safety training prepares Connecticut’s fishing industry

Balcom_helicopter_rescue at sea
Helicopter rescue at sea is part of some UConn fisherman training classes. Nancy Balcom/UConn photo

From television programs, like the Deadliest Catch, viewers get an idea of how hard it is to make one’s living in commercial fishing. The possible hazards depicted, such as having a crew member go into the water or discovering a fire onboard, are also serious threats for commercial fishermen who ply the waters of New England.

In 2018, there were 406 licensed commercial fishermen in Connecticut. Survival is at stake.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 225 commercial fishing deaths occurred in East Coast fisheries from 2000 to 2014. “Some of New England’s fisheries are the most dangerous in the United States,” said Senior Cooperative Extension Educator Nancy Balcom, who organizes free training sessions to prepare the local fishing industry for the dangers it faces.

In the late 1990s, she took Rhode Island Sea Grant-sponsored training, became a certified instructor and was inspired to teach fisherman safety herself in Connecticut. Now, she is the organizer for two days of classes, the first day is for refreshing skills and the second is for drill conductor certification training. Balcom, who also does seafood safety training, says she thought, “This is a service I can provide to the Connecticut fishermen with whom I have worked over the years.”

Although the classes are not mandatory, they are an important resource that could help save the lives of the participants and their co-workers, according to Balcom.

Last year, 36 people refreshed their emergency response and survival skills. This involves classroom instruction, which covers first aid and choosing a personal flotation device (PDF). Wearing a PDF on board is so important considering that NIOSH reports, “Nationwide, none of the fishermen who died from falling overboard were wearing a PFD when they drowned. PFDs can keep fishermen afloat, giving the crew time for rescue.”

Fire Suppression practice by fisherman Nancy Balcom photo
A fisherman practices fire suppression with a crew member providing backup. Nancy Balcom/UConn photo

In the hands-on portion of the first day’s course at UConn Avery Point, participants learn fire suppression, patching holes and leaks, firing signal flares and practicing May Day calls, donning their personal brightly colored immersion suits and entering the water and a life raft safely. According to Balcom, this helps reduce the fear of the unknown and builds confidence, camaraderie and greater safety through team work.

Captain Joe Gilbert, who brought all ten of his crew to one of the classes, said, “Fisherman safety training has helped us be ready for emergencies through well-designed classroom curriculum and by allowing us to jump into simulated perilous situations where we put our new skills into practice.”

The second day class, attended by 13 people last year, instructs and certifies those who conduct Coast Guard-required monthly safety drills. It focuses on four scenarios: man overboard, flooding, fire and abandon ship. The group works on developing station bills that assign responsibilities for all aspects of these four situations to crew members so that they are ready to respond quickly and efficiently to sudden hazards.

Initially Balcom teamed up with local US Coast Guard fishing vessel examiners to offer the training. More recently, she also partnered with Burlington, Massachusetts Fishing Partnership Support Services instructors, who know the latest safety regulations and can demonstrate and oversee the use of the various types of equipment. In addition, they relate personally to the benefits of the training as former commercial fishermen.

Immersion Suit training
Trainer Ed Dennehy from Fishing Partnership Support Services watches as fishermen practice properly entering the water in their immersion suits. Nancy Balcom/UConn photo

Balcom says it is sobering to see how fast fishermen have to react in an emergency. “Commercial fishermen must be so familiar with safety procedures that using them becomes a natural reflex. It is similar to teaching children the importance of buckling their seatbelts as soon as they get in the car,” she said.

For example, Gilbert described an experience where a ruptured hydraulic line sprayed vaporized oil onto a turbocharger and caused smoke in the engine room. The crew mustered in less than a minute, and a plan of action was put into place quickly. As a result, his crew was safe and able to fish for the last four days of the trip.

“A longer response time could have been catastrophic. Our training paid off when seconds counted,” Gilbert said.

Two days of training costs about $10,000 to conduct, with Connecticut Sea Grant, Fishing Partnership Support Services, US Coast Guard and the University of Connecticut sponsoring the most recent sessions. Balcom feels strongly that she offer the training for free when participants are giving up one or two days of earning their livelihood in order to attend. In addition, she emphasizes that the material taught is important for the safety and survival of those employed in a very dangerous job. She said, “I don’t know how you put a value on life.”

Balcom, who is also associate director and program leader for Connecticut Sea Grant, may be contacted for more information about commercial fisherman safety training courses.

By Patsy Evans