July 12, 2020 was a lazy Sunday morning at Naval Base San Diego. The USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), which had only entered service two years earlier, had recently made the base her new homeport and was docked while undergoing a maintenance readiness.
But the stillness of that morning was shattered a few minutes before 9 a.m. by an explosion that changed everything for the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship.
Below decks, cloth, rags, paper, lithium batteries and other hazardous materials were improperly stored, creating ideal conditions for a fire. Additionally, during the conversion, onboard firefighting systems had been disabled as crews worked to prepare the ship for its next deployment. These conditions and more resulted in a ship fire that took five days to fail to fully extinguish.
The intense heat of the flames melted metal and caused the flight deck to buckle and warp. The damage was so great that the ship’s forward mast collapsed under its own weight. Of the ship’s 14 decks, 11 suffered significant fire and water damage. At the end of the five-day ordeal, 63 workers would be hospitalized for minor injuries.
In the months following the fire, the Navy estimated that repairs worth $2.5 to $3.2 billion and an estimated five to seven years would be required to rebuild and repair the devastated ship. In light of these findings, the ship was decommissioned, its critical components removed and sold for scrap.
While Bonhomme Richard is one of the Navy’s most notorious ship fires, it’s far from the only one in recent years. Here at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility, ship fires are a constant threat that requires constant vigilance.
These fires are a particularly unique hazard because of their location. Being on the water or in dry dock limits the ability of firefighters to gain access and fight fires on board as effectively as they do on land. The limited mobility and cramped conditions combined with the obstacles of temporary utilities on ships also make avoiding and controlling factors such as smoke inhalation, heat and flame difficult.
With this in mind, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS & IMF) is renewing its shipboard fire safety efforts by drawing attention to four principles every employee must know to protect our people and our ships:
Prepare: Be ready for a fire
Do you know what to do when a fire breaks out? The first step in preparation is having trained personnel understand safety plans and plan work to prevent fire hazards. Our workforce must be able to identify the gaps in their training and the readiness of our equipment, and make consistent efforts to remedy deficiencies.
Prevent: Minimize the risk of fire
What do you do to prevent your work from causing a fire on board? This principle helps workers make decisions about hot work. It also teaches workers to manage risks in maintenance phases, equipment status changes and transitions (pierside to dry dock, etc.) that must be made to maintain an effective safety posture. Understanding how to properly store and contain materials that can fuel a fire are also key components of this principle. To ensure that prevention is used, managers and team members must take account of oversight by the shipyard’s fire safety organization and ensure compliance.
Protect: Enable firefighting teams to respond quickly to a fire
If a fire breaks out, do you know how to react? If smoke and flames erupt, do employees have clear and lighted routes to get to safety? Workers are asked to remain vigilant for signs of a fire. With the Protect principle in place, workers know how to notify and direct personnel to assist with evacuation and enable firefighting teams to respond.
Respond: Take action to minimize the spread of the fire
Do you know what to do when flames break out? The last safety principle on board helps workers to make sensible decisions in case of fire.
Employees should know how to respond promptly to threats, call firefighters and rescue workers ashore, and arrange for evacuation and billing of personnel. Understanding concepts such as access point control and airflow control will also help prevent a serious fire from becoming a fatal fire.
While the work at PSNS and IMF never stops, an uncontrolled fire could undo all the work that goes into maintaining our nation’s fleet. Many of the industrial processes used by our artisans involve high heat and risk of igniting when live. Fire safety on board focuses on minimizing these risks and overcoming the challenges that come with them. When we practice fire safety on board, we help ensure our teammates return home safely to their families and help the fleet maintain its position as the world’s most dominant naval force.
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