Lieutenant Brady’s article won the Naval Submarine League Essay Prize for Submarine Officer Advanced Course 97101.
Fires are a submarine’s worst enemy. From the acrid odors we have all smelled to the inferno that engulfed BONEFISH, fires have touched every one of us and will continue to challenge our ability to survive in the submarine world. Although the Naval Sea Systems Command and Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have done an adequate job on promulgating NSTM SSS volume 2 (Submarine Fire Fighting), much more can be done with existing resources to improve fighting fires on submarines.
Compared to other disasters onboard ship, fire presents one of the most likely paths of removing a submarine’s warfighting capability. Most systems (electrical, integrity of hull) have redundant backups. Loss of electrical power on David Bushnell’s TURTLE (the world’s first submarine), would not have been so traumatic, but on today’s micro-switch/micro-chip operated boats this could be a huge disaster. At hundreds of feet deep, with no lights or depth control, the submarine is certainly in peril. Yet, we have all handled this casualty. Backing up our ship’s service turbine generator is another turbine generator, a large storage battery, and a diesel generator. Engineers created levels of redundancy, protecting the submarine from an electrical power failure. Flooding is another serious casualty. Again, through redundancy of hull and backup valves, remotely operated flood control valves, and an emergency ballast tank blow system, the impact of the casualty is minimized on the ship’s mission. The potential flooding hazard is also minimized by the continual surveillance of attentive watchstanders. Submarine fires on the other hand, happen without warning with no redundant protections.
Submarine fires are awesome. In less than two minutes, a compartment can be over pressurized. In a minute, visibility reduces to near zero. It takes no time at all before the atmosphere is completely toxic and the tissue in our lungs seers at 160°F. The compartment temperatures quickly achieve flashover levels of 1100°F. The submarine with all of its combustibles from oil and HP air. to electronics and weapons becomes a time bomb; the crew is the only EOD team available.
Each submarine crew learns the basic NSTM 555 knowledge. From this they each develop their own strategy on combating fires. Each ship varies this attack plan as it sees fit and coordinates its resources in the best array it knows how. Some COs envision this coordination as an a.flowing of effort toward the fire from all parts of the ship. This coordination of resources and flow of effort is the art of fire fighting. The engine room will still overpressure in two minutes, the temperatures will still reach l lOO°F very shortly: these things will not change. How your boat eventually extinguishes the fire and gets back to fighting the war may be considerably different from mine though.
Naval Submarine Base New London and Submarine School have an excellent opportunity to conduct controlled experiments testing the effectiveness of submarine crews’ coordination of resources, flow of effort. or art of fire fighting. With approximate! y one-third of the entire U.S. submarine fleet home ported in New London providing an ample source of participants and the award winning” SubScol Fire Fighting Trainer. the factors are right for change. The Fire Fighting Trainer could be an excellent extension of the NRL. My suggestion is that the trainer not only promulgate basic guidance, but conduct research using actual submarine crews and their methods in the controlled setting of the trainer.
A SubScol fire fighting instructor mentioned that the trainer staff does nothing more than promulgate and reinforce the basics laid out in NSTM 555. This is a waste of an elaborately controlled potential research setting. New recruits and experienced submarine personnel perform the same canned scenarios. Should a real fire develop on their boat, these experiences may be of limited value. Sea returnee attendees also receive a basic lecture on the fundamentals of fire and fire fighting equipment, rehashing information contained in NSTM 555. Instructor sea stories bring home some of the points in the NSTM, but this is just one instructor’s artistic impression of our worst enemy. The environment in New London is ripe to improve the submarine community’s critical understanding of fire fighting through better use of the SubScol Fire Fighting Trainer platform.
One way to use the SubScol Fire Fighting Trainer better is to conduct controlled experiments investigating the variability of each submarine crew’s fire fighting art. Let’s investigate how these experiments might be undertaken.
In conducting a controlled experiment, one must consider a number of points:
- Select relevant dependent and independent variables.
- Specify the level(s) of the treatment.
- Control the experimental environment.
- Choose the experimental design.
- Select and assign subjects.
- Pilot test, revise and test.
- Analyze the data.
A research coordinator should be selected as an initial step. He must have an understanding of process control, be able to maintain the timeline of the research, coordinate the experimental effort, and look out for situations that could threaten the experiment’s validity. The research coordinator may be the SubScol Fire Fighting Trainer Division Officer. He would compile a board of experts to help produce the seven steps above. The panel’s theoretical chair would be COMSUBGRUTWO, with other members to include CO, NA VSUBSCOL, Commodores of Squadrons Two and Twelve, their Squadron Engineers, and others. These experts would help the research coordinator approve some basic research questions like: “Does a crew that uses X techniques (or X piece of gear) attain improved fire survivability?” Next, the coordinator states hypotheses such as: “Crews that use X technique (or X piece of gear) extinguish fires and ventilate the space quicker than crews who do not.”
The process of setting up this experiment is not easy. The coordinator must consider the many aspects of the design and test them before implementation if the results of the experiment are to remain valid after publishing for public review. The sample research question given above is only a suggestion. The board of experts may decide to explore a number of different questions such as, “Does the use of color coded hoses lead to improve fire survivability”, or “Does assigning fire fighting team members by division rather than the watch bill improve fire team command and control?” Regardless, the research coordinator’s next challenges are: choosing variables that best represent the idea being studied, determining how many variables to collect data on, and selecting or inventing measures for these variables.
In choosing variables based on the sample research question, the research coordinator needs to select a set of variables that best convey the meanings of crew, X technique, and improved fire survivability. Does having the flames extinguished in five minutes represent improved fire survivability? Does fire survivability depend on ventilation of the space, or number of injured firefighters? Defining the word improved is critical so the results may be analyzed statistically using a significance test such as chi square or T-test.
The remaining steps are equally challenging, but more intuitive. Time spent on designing a well though out set of experiments using all the submarines homeported in New London may reveal powerful insights or guidelines for fighting and surviving fires aboard submarines. Such revelations may result in a deeper understanding of how we currently fight fires and how we can improve. Any step in this direction would be a more effective use of the Fire Fighting Trainer and would reduce fire fighting casualties aboard ships.
Another, less rigorous step in finding better ways to conduct submarine fire fighting is through an improved use of seminars, as described in COMSUBLANT/COMSUBPAC INST 3500.lA, The COMSUBLANTICOMSUBPAC Training Manual. Seminars are group meetings set up by Squadron Commodores to address certain topics.8 Attendees include submarine COs, department heads, and their selected representatives. At this squadron level, COs could come together at the Fire Fighting Trainer to discuss how they fight fires. Junior officers may attend these seminars and perhaps participate in discussions of how to best combat this, our worst enemy.
A third way to improve the effectiveness of the submarine community’s fire fighting skills is to create a fire fighting competition among submarines. This would not only get the crews talking to one another about fire fighting, but also instill a competitive drive amongst the crews. These sub versus sub competitions could be similar to the volunteer fire department competitions held at county fairs across the nation. Central Illinois has yearly competitions where volunteers arrive for a parade and then later conduct races that test their basic fire fighting skills, like spraying a suspended ball with a stream of water down a guidewire. Although this act in itself would never be met in a real fire, the acts of quickly dressing in gear, assembling equipment and directing a stream of water surely are. A county fair atmosphere could be set up on each pier by the duty sections during the summer. Families would be invited down for a steel beach picnic after the competition.
As Sun Tzu, in his book The Art of War said: “for to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. ” In the art of submarine fire fighting, there are not battles. Fire prevention (subduing the fire before it ignites) has always been our hallmark. Once a blaze has erupted though, there is no turning back. A war of epic proportion may be just moments away and we must use our pooled fleet corporate knowledge on how to best survive.
Successful fire fighting and prevention is critical to the health and well-being of a ship and its crew. Using the trainer to research the best fire fighting tactics, improving the quality of fire fighting seminars, and designing activities to engage the crews in both discussing fire safety and practical fire fighting skills will result in more effective fire fighting training. Long lasting benefits will be the result. The above has not only highlighted our need to become more open to each other’s submarine fire fighting knowledge, 10 but has also recommended a set of solutions on how to accomplish this with current resources.