In the past few years a profound change has been taking place in submarine firefighting tactics. The addition of new fire simulators in San Diego and New London has markedly improved the abiUty of shipboard personnel in the handling of fire emergencies quickly and efficiently.
This program is the direct result of a shipboard firefighting renaissance that has effected every navy in the world. It began in the Falklands War and has gained momentum with the USS STARK and Soviet Mike submarine fire disasters. [Ed Note: see SUBMARINE REVIEW, April1991.] Glasnost has had a very positive result in this area. The U.S. submarine service has been able to gain much in the way of adopting preventative practices, upgrading methods of operation and learning how not to do some things.
We are not, however, without our own disasters. The classroom at the Naval Submarine Training Facility in San Diego displays artifacts from our Navy’s last major submarine fire, USS BONERSH. [Ed Note: see SUBMARINE REVIEW, October 1990.] On April 22, 1988, the diesel powered BONEFISH experienced a serious fire while operating off the coast of Florida. A simple class C fire spread to the combustible hull insulation and was extinguished only after considerable effort. The prevailing wisdom was to discharge as many portable extinguishers as the crew could assemble and hope the fire could be contained.
Many of us remember the firefighting episodes in the days of diesel boats. Drills were mainly play acting and fire training situations were often the division engineer holding a red flag. Seldom was an extinguishing agent discharged and fire hose was never used for anything but taking on potable water.
In actual fires, two or three men in dungarees, OBA’s and tee shirts groped through the compartment on fire. This was usually an engineroom with oily diesel-soaked rags burning in the bilge. The Purple K or C02 contamination was as bad as the products of combustion. The only advantage was the ability to draw a vacuum if snorkeling. Those crew members outside the fire compartment cycled back and forth bringing every available fire extinguisher to the adjacent hatch. There was plenty of incentive to be aggressive in the attack on the fire, but the equipment was just not up to the job in a large involvemenl For years it was assumed that submarine fires could be handled by portable extinguishers – sometimes as many as twenty were discharged in futile attempts to control a blaze. It is now policy to deploy 1 1/2″ fire hoses when two band-portable extinguishers have not completely controlled a fire situation.
The vast majority of submarine fires are electrical in origin. Regular maintenance and thorough training of every crew member in isolating effected equipment are the major preventative measures. Several serious fires on the older boats were caused by battery charging hydrogen explosions and while these are still possible, their limited use of batteries in modem SSNs, and the consequent minimization of the charging intensity, has reduced this hazard.
Considering the hazardous materials, combustible metals, hydro-carbon liquids under high pressure, high explosives, pyrotechnics and pressurized vessels all in a confined area, nuclear submarines are possibly the toughest firefighting environment in the world today.
Class A and B fires occur with much less frequency but account for the majority of serious fire incidents. The newer fast attack LOS ANGELES class submarines have about 1.5 acres of combustible hull insulation. Even with fire retardant paint this represents a formidable threat in the closed environment. It was found that relying on the traditional surface ship damage control methods was not effective and that special firefighting tactics and equipment were necessary. Tests have shown that only two gallons of diesel fuel burning in the closed environment of the submarine would raise the pressure in the vessel over two atmospheres in just one minute. This fact, the effect of the products of combustion and close proximity of other potential hazards mandate a fast, aggressive, well coordinated fire attack.
Aggressive tactics were exactly what the submarine community has always practiced in wartime and this approach had to be adapted to the development of new methods of firefighting methods, operation and thinking. Realistic training to replace the old extinguisher drills was vital in this effort and could not be practiced aboard an operating vessel.
Today’s submarines are equipped with up to date firefighting tools such as AFFF hand extinguishers for bilge fires, thermal imaging devices (NFI1) and state of the art protective clothing. Some of these items were adaptations of civilian gear and not equipment developed by the surface navy. The heat resistant Navy Firefighting Ensemble is an excellent protective envelope for the fire crews. The incorporation of new fiber technology greatly reduces the danger of flashover and bum injury. Fire helmets as used on surface ships were found too cumbersome for the confines of the submarine and only nomex protective hoods are worn. Every submarine now has an emergency air breathing system, not unlike the systems used by civilian fire departments, this is backed up by the old OBA Every compartment has many connections and the men are well schooled in its use.
The standard emergency firefighting crew consists of a man in charge with the thermal imager, nozzleman, baseman and plugman all wearing the protective fire fighting ensemble. The crew has a choice of C02, AFFF and Purple K hand-held extinguishers or 1 1!2″ hose flowing about 60 GPM. The hose used is a derivative of National N-Dura municipal hose coupled in 2S foot lengths. Firefighting water is pressurized sea water from the trim system. This has delayed the implementation of the new navy variable pattern fog nozzle now seen throughout the surface navy and Coast Guard. The pressurized fire water system is not set up for the 40% increased volume and pressure necessary to make the new nozzles perform properly. Many submarines are being upgraded to enable this very effective replacement to be used. Some boats had to have ship alterations to enable the fire hose connections to be accessible in an emergency.
As all firefighting professionals know, the only way to insure effectiveness and guarantee efficient operations is to conduct lifelike training drills. The Navy began to design and install Submarine Firefighting Training simulators utilizing environmentally safe, live bum, heat and non-toxic smoke generating equipment. There are now two, of a planned four, facilities complete, one on the east coast in New London, Connecticut, and the newest in San Diego, California. The simulators incorporate the latest in solid state controls and provide a very lifelike and safe training ‘situation.
In the summer of 1991 the Submarine Training Facility, San Diego, began conducting basic firefighting classes. The two-day course begins with a day in the class room followed by a day in the live bum trainer. The classes have received very favorable comments, fire schools heretofore considered the realm of nonquals are now enthusiastically attended by seasoned veterans. In keeping with the philosophy that everyone on board is a firefighter, the instructors are from a variety of rates with both engineering and operations backgrounds.
The class room portion covers the research conducted on the various submarine fire incidents through the years and an intense review of all firefighting equipment carried onboard submarines. There are about 15 students in each class from several different commands and care is taken to explain the system differences in the various types of ships to which the men were assigned. The basics of fire behavior and extinguishing agents are covered in detail. The Chief Petty Officer in charge of the training explains that the basic class is the first of three levels of training. It is primarily for equipment familiarization and an indoctrination walk through, emphasizing communication skills. The main purpose of the simulator is the operational evaluation of ship’s firefighting crews in emergency situations. This is called team training and involves three exercises for groups from the same ship. The crews are run through progressively more difficult scenarios that test and evaluate their organization, communication and ability to handle unexpected problems such as equipment failures. The exercises also have progressively reduced visibility requiring the use of the thermal imaging device (NFTI). The crews are graded on their performance and reports sent through the operational chain of command. These exercises are taken very seriously.
The most sophisticated training conducted in the simulator is Advanced Firefighting School for senior enlisted men and officers. This course is designed to develop emergency scene leadership for the person in charge at an incident. Several men from the same ship attend and alternate as crew and leader through a series of complicated live bum evolutions. The participants are evaluated on how the command and control of the situation and casualties is conducted.
Every class is followed up with a comprehensive critique and the courses are improved as suggestions from the teams and the fleet are received. The Training Centers, by the nature of their expertise, have assumed a collateral function as clearing houses for information on fires, fire prevention and specific problems encountered by the different classes of boats.
The Submarine Force has spent a great deal of time, energy and money to upgrade this very important facet of its warfighting role. The preliminary indications are that it is working very well, and that will help all of us sleep a little bit sounder both ashore and at sea.
A special thanks to the men and women of the Submarine Training Facility, San Diego, especially Captain Raaz, his relief Captain Lattig, LCDR Reickenberg, Chief Lewis and Petty Officer Moore.[Ed. Note: Also a special thanks to Captain Joe Taussig, USN(Ret.), Dr. Homer Carhart of NRL and many others who lulve been on the never ending quest to fmd new ways to provide fire safety and bring these revelations to the movers and shakers of the U.S. Navy.
Mr. Hughes is an experienced Training Officer for a municipal frre service and served aboard diesel submarines during the VietNam era.]