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by Lt. j.g. David Guthmann and crew of SSN 750

As Damage Control Assistant (DCA) onboard USS Newport News (SSN 750) in an Engineered Overhaul (EOH) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, news of the USS Miami (SSN 755) fire was sobering. My Commanding Officer (CO), Cmdr. J. Carl Hartsfield, strategically outlined the development of a simple assessment strategy that would measure our ability to discover a major casualty and improve our readiness to fight it. Major constraints were that the program must have minimal impact to shipyard production during intrusive maintenance and be random in nature to truly measure a watchstander’s engagement around the clock.

Depot-level maintenance made this challenge unique as a majority of the ship’s normally installed damage control (DC) equipment was removed and replaced with functional but less robust systems. Additionally, our crew shifted habitability from the boat to a nearby living barge, meaning that during sleeping hours the only means of fire detection onboard were roving watchstanders and periodic supervisor tours. To complicate things further, shipyard work requires a myriad of routed temporary systems to include water, air, and electrical connections through hatches and hull cuts. These conditions can quickly become overwhelming on a submarine, where space is always at a premium.

Even the smallest fire with the least amount of fuel can become uncontrollable if the crew does not understand the importance of their continuous presence onboard. Assessing the crew’s presence and engagement required a tool that was capable of performing randomized spots checks over the entire ship. Essentially, the tool needed to help measure and maintain the deck plate engagement necessary to detect and contain a small to medium fire in its initial stages after prevention fails but before evacuation of the ship becomes necessary (Figure 1).

Method of Assessment
To accomplish the CO’s goals, the ship instituted a CODE RED program using a small, flashing red LED light to represent fire. The time and location of drill initiation by supervisors in the duty section were assigned randomly up to a week in advance. The end result was a drill, unpredictable by watchstanders, set to occur multiple times a day in various spaces. The drill schedule was approved by the CO weekly and executed by duty section supervisors. Our official study spanned about six months, though this drill regime is still being executed onboard.

A goal of 15 minutes was chosen for an acceptable response time. Although no formal studies have been conducted to prove the validity of 15 minutes, it remains a reasonable assumption for the time at which a fire cannot be attacked without evacuation to regroup and re-equip in heavy firefighting gear. Furthermore, our target response time was driven by the fact that, without airline supplied breathing masks, we must attack a fire swiftly before smoke spreads early in the growth stage and guarantees a fully involved casualty. Fire readiness can prove challenging, especially at night when onboard manning is minimal.

A submarine in dry dock can have as few as three watchstanders in-hull with the remaining crew asleep on the living barge. Two roving watchstanders (one forward, one aft) must cover the entire boat, take log readings, spot any danger, inform the crew, and respond. The drill response desired was to find the light, simulate calling for help, and walk through the actions to put extinguishing agent on the fire.

Each drill was secretly initiated and monitored by one of four deckplate supervisors on shift that day, allowing safe muscle memory practice of this critical skill set under a trained and watchful eye. The extent and randomness of the drills ensured that all watchstanders got multiple events over the course of a month. For CODE REDs that exceeded 15 minutes, immediate training was expected. Monthly, the CO and I analyzed the collected data in a dashboard format, looking for weaknesses by ship location, time of day, watch section, or watch station.

Data gathered through our CODE RED study included more than 175 drill events from July to November of 2012. Figure 2 shows how many times per week the 15-minute limit was exceeded over the course of the study. As training progressed, procedures improved, and the crew clearly understood expectations, a clear downward trend in unsatisfactory responses emerged.

There were also occasions where a flashing light would not be discovered in a reasonable amount of time (nominally about 45 minutes), and the drill had to be suspended. These responses were essentially considered “infinite” and, although rare, were particularly troubling since this mock fire would have certainly gotten out of control. One might argue that visible smoke or acrid odor would have alerted the watchstander prior to reaching 45 minutes; however, margin to safety is increased by driving down average response time and completely eliminating these infinite occurrences.

The most dangerous “infinites” occurred between the hours of midnight and 0600 when most of the duty section was asleep on the barge. Figures 3 and 4 show a before and after scatter plot of the drills as these rare but unacceptable data points were reduced, and completely eliminated in November and December (infinite response times are indicated by an ∞ symbol).

To date in 2013, more than 60 sessions of detailed, hands-on fire fighting training have been held on the deckplates to feed back the results of over 350 individual drills. Additionally, we have used these methods to match higher risk shipyard work with crew presence. Counter-intuitively, low presence times can even occur during the work day when meetings and watch turnovers stack up while higher fire-risk industrial work occurs.

Armed with this study, our CO also sought the design and employment of two quick-deployable, reel-type, non-collapsible (NC) fire hoses to help our initial responders put more extinguishing agent on a fire sooner. These innovative, low-cost, shipyard-supplied reels serve to bridge the gap between rapid responders with fire extinguishers and fully dressed fire teams with traditional collapsible hoses.

Average response time for the NC hose to arrive on scene is less than two minutes, making a continuous chain of extinguishing agent now possible. Other lessons learned from our continuously improving program include:

Though this command study was initiated by our CO, it was “owned” by the crew. Supervisors down to the Second Class Petty Officer level provided meaningful suggestions on how to improve the ship’s overall fire response plan. Supervisors were fully engaged in preventing pre-alertment of the drills and conducting on-the-spot training for any response that was sub-standard. The crew took criticism well and worked hard to improve. No watchstander who performed poorly was ever singled out or disqualified; peer pressure and competition were enough to correct individuals and prevent a trend in poor performance.

Analysis of results over time led to some significant strategic changes in how we planned for major casualties—changes that were neither obvious nor mandated by procedure when the ship drydocked. Our response in drills and the few small casualties that we have experienced has improved dramatically and will hopefully continue to improve as we continue aggressive assessment strategies throughout our extended shipyard availability and beyond.