Good Company

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Ship History: Every Sailor is a Firefighter

The other day I was talking to a professional firefighter and mentioned that I, unlike most civilians, had been exposed to firefighting training as a part of going to sea. I used the old Navy saying, "Every sailor is a firefighter."

We took fire safety and fire fighting preparedness very seriously on the ammunition ship I served in, but really not any more than on a destroyer or cruiser.

But it got me to thinking that most Americans don't always appreciate that sailors have to save their own ships if they can or deal with the sea. Lose your ship and it's a long wet walk home.

Take these true tales: A ship gets surprised by a terrorist bomb while in port. The crew, though suffering 17 dead, fights back by putting out fires, stopping the spread of flooding and saving their ship.

Another ship is hit by a surprise missile attack while on patrol. The crew fights back, saving their ship:
The explosion, blast and fragmentation of the second warhead caused severe structural damage to the ship's hull, bulkheads and superstructure on the port side at frame 110. The shrapnel and blast also caused catastrophic damage inside Stark between frames 100 and 140, destroying watertight integrity, cracking arresting stakes, compromising fire boundaries and severing the port firemain which immediately started to flood the ship and create a list to port as shown in Figure 3-5. Each missile injected approximately 300 pounds of propellant into the berthing complex. The combustion of the burning propellant resulted in a near instantaneous heat release of 12 million BTUs, which caused a rapid thermal pulse seldom seen in normal fires. The fire reached "flashover" in less than one minute. (Flashover is a condition whereby overhead temperatures reach 1400-1500ยบ F. When heat is this intense, all combustible materials burst into flames and fire engulfs the space.) The majority of the casualties (25) occurred in ship's control berthing. As the surviving crewmembers scrambled to escape the berthing spaces, several donned EEBDs and all proceeded to their practiced egress routes. Five men went through the hole in the skin of the ship on the port side and were later picked up. All had used EEBDs before going into the water. All other survivors used designated egress routes. Later inspection revealed five men were killed in combat systems berthing and three in chief quarters berthing.

Meanwhile, the fire started to spread vertically to the riser compartment, then CIC and the CO's cabin. Stark was struggling to maintain firemain pressure. At 2200 hours, pressure was restored to the ship aft of frame 180, enabling firefighters on the fantail to start pressing the fight forward. However, because of the ruptured firemain, there was no capability to fight fires forward or to flood the missile magazine. A 1.5-inch hose run forward from the starboard side of the 02 level eventually flooded the magazine. At 2300, the CO ordered all engines stopped so P-250 pumps on the forecastle could maintain suction and provide firefighting water to the forward bulkhead fire boundaries. Once this was achieved, crewmembers made a determined effort to set and advance fire boundaries and get the fire under control.

Casualties suffered as a result of the explosion significantly depleted the fire teams. In fact, both repair party leaders, number 1 hose operators and investigators for Repair 2 and 3 had been killed in the first moments of the conflagration. Strong leadership at the department head level and the solid professionalism of the crew drove the remaining crewmembers to continue battling the fires. At 0134, May 18, USS Waddell arrived on scene to provide medical and damage control supplies.

Shortly after this point, the CO became concerned when the angle of list reached 16 degrees. The executive officer (XO) organized a dewatering party, directing one group to enter the berthing area and secure the firemain piping. A second group was sent to cut holes in the bulkhead above the main deck to dewater spaces and recover the angle of list.

As morning dawned, it became very clear that Stark's exhausted crew, having mounted a determined and persistent fight, was now too worn out and depleted to continue without assistance. Teams from Waddell and Conyngham moved aboard. Firefighting and dewatering efforts were continued until late morning, when the fire was considered out and reflash watches set.

Survivability Principles Applied: Stark was a well-qualified and trained ship. All officers and chief petty officers were general damage control qualified. All personnel in each repair locker were qualified for their assigned positions. Repair party training was conducted on a regular basis and all hands understood the ship's main drainage and electrical systems. These factors contributed significantly to saving the ship after the initial damage, loss of 18 percent of the crew and a significant portion of its damage control leadership.

No serious injuries or loss of life occurred during Stark's damage control effort. Six additional skilled backups were assigned to each repair locker. This significantly helped minimize losses. Stark carried twice the OBA allowance and three times the canisters specified; these were all used in the 12-hour battle to save the ship.
Where do sailors learn these skills?

And some Sea Cadets visit the Buttercup:

It's harder when there's smoke, fire, noise, wounded, killed and the like.

Training matters.

"You will not rise to the occasion, you will default to the level of your training."

Navy's website for Damage Control, Firefighting Engineering and CBR-D.

Website for book about USS Stark No Higher Honor. Website for book about the Forrestal fire Sailors to the End

By the way, when was the last time you checked your smoke alarms and tried your house evacuation plan? In the dark?

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