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There have been at least four drowning deaths in the last twelve months in the Submarine Service. It is time for an examination of procedures and the life saving equipment made available to our sailors. This is not a new hazard!

The recent events aboard the BARBEL are an embarrassment to the Submarine Service. It is easy to say, “Well, it was their fault.” They were not following good submarine practices by not wearing harnesses and kapok jackets.” I suspect a “Personal for” has been issued. That is traditionally what is done and the problem is called “ftxed.” But is it? Let’s do more this time.

In 1978 there was a series of drownings and we did exactly the same thing. We became strict for awhile about wearing kapok life jackets and harnesses.

If a problem continues to resurface, is it solved? Should the particular “solution” to this problem be re-examined?

“But the new Type 1 life vest provides the best buoyancy for an unconscious victim,” it is argued. Certainly, for a sailor who is unconscious and in the water there is nothing currently available to him that provides more buoyancy than his Type 1 life vest. Few sailors realize how likely they are to be unconscious once they end up in the water. 35% of those who go overboard are incapacitated in the process. Very few however, receive critical injuries before entering the water. Contrary to popular belief, in almost every case a normal evolution precedes an injury and a proper safety harness could have prevented the immersion all together.

Then how do the majority of victims end up unconscious? They swallow or inhale a large amount of salt water as they hit the water. These men do not immediately Jose consciousness. There is sufficient medical evidence to prove that an individual does not black out instantaneously. He looses consciousness about sixty seconds later.

In the past year there have been three submarine personnel merely injured as they dangled from their safety harness. These harnesses force the individual to hang from a hook in the middle of his back. Who could possibly help himself in that attitude? Even the latest innovation, the turning line, is of little value other than as a nuisance. Of note, turning lines are not being universally retrofitted. If the hooks were in front on the harness, an individual would have a considerably easier time conducting a self rescue.

Now for the most controversial question – Why do sailors prefer not to wear their life jackets topside? The answer is quite simple; the jackets are bulky, cumbersome and very hot. For the submarine service, the traditional Type 1 life jacket is simply not an appropriate piece of gear. There must be a better answer.

The time has come for a technical evaluation of the safety harness and life jacket duo. As an initial suggestion, it is recommended that commercially available harnesses and inflatable life jackets be used in combination. An inflatable jacket? Why not? It provides equal or greater buoyancy than a traditional jacket. Most commercial inflatables are rated at 45 lbs of positive buoyancy, while Type l’s rate at either 21 or 32 lbs of buoyancy. With commercial combination there would be no excuse for not wearing a harness or jacket. The commercial gear would be very light weight, significantly more comfortable and dramatically cooler. Below decks, finally, two people in life jackets could pass each other in the passageway. Aviators have acknowledged the value of the inflatable in their “fanny pack,” with a single C02 cartridge to inflate it. An integrated harness and vest however, would have two chambers and two C02 cartridges.

The integrated harness is meant as a security harness and a device to prevent an individual from washing overboard in the first place. A deck security harness is frequently confused with a harness intended to protect a man working aloft. They are very different devices. The deck security harness and the safety harness for working aloft should be two entirely separate and unique harnesses.

For ten years composite harnesses have met with total success aboard recreational and commercial craft. No one has drowned wearing one of them. There are currently over 12,000 of these harness-life jacket combinations in use today. Made of extremely strong synthetic fibers, integrated harnesses are not subject to the rotting problems of Kapok jackets.

As a final comment on security harnesses, in a well publicized accident several people nearly drowned on the sailing vessel PRIDE of BALTIMORE because they could not escape their harnesses. Within the last year two submarines have inadvertently submerged while on the surface. The outcome would have been significantly more disastrous had personnel wearing harnesses been topside. Also, some men have died because they were dragged backward by their harnesses and were unable to escape. The commercial industry has adopted a harness with a positive-action release at both ends of the lanyard. The Navy should certainly consider this modification to its current harnesses provided they are worn in conjunction with some form of life jacket.

The U.S. submarine force regularly applauds the seamanship of our fraternal brothers, the Brits. They wear inOatable life vests. Maybe we should be taking a lesson from them and recognize that the traditional Kapok jacket and chain safety harness have become outmoded. There is an obligation to provide our sailors with the best safety equipment the Submarine Navy can afford.

Christopher Carver

Naval Submarine League

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