U.S. Navy addresses chain of command for surface ship fires

U.S. Navy addresses chain of command for surface ship fires

The U.S. Navy has confirmed it is addressing the chai of command for fires and other emergencies that occur onboard ships whilst they are in port for maintenance.

The statement comes from the head of the surface navy after uncertainty about who was in charge contributed to unsatisfactory firefighting efforts on former amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. The ship caught fire in July 2020, and burned for five days with the blaze difficult to contain by firefighters. The fire was eventually doused but the ship was no longer useable and had to be scrapped as a result.

Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener told reporters the surface community is investing in fire safety, including paying for additional training and hiring more fire safety officers. One of the key changes is to now clearly identify which leader on the waterfront would take charge of the situation if a fire or other emergency arose. This clearer plan of action will now rest with Kitchener, in his role as commander of Naval Surface Force Pacific, and Rear Adm. Brendan McLane as the commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson told Defense News that the four-star admirals at U.S. Pacific Fleet, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa jointly issues a naval message in April formally assigning SURFPAC and SURFLANT as the deputy primary commander for major fires, underneath those four-stars as the primary commander during an incident. The April message also eliminates any questions as to who has authority to coordinate the response to a major in-port fire.

Speaking to reporters, Kitchener said: “We’ve continued to work and formalise waterfront [command and control]. The bottom line is the PACFLT commander is the overall authority; he delegates to me as the deputy primary commander to be in charge of any kind of major incident that happens on surface ships in any of our fleet concentration areas.”

He added that the surface community will be running drills to ensure this new command and control structure is well understood.

Kitchener also said the ship maintenance community is focusing on fire prevention and manual response. This new focus will include rewriting parts of Naval Sea Systems Command’s fire prevention and response manual and will likely mandate the Navy to add more resources and safety features to aid emergency response.

Kitchener said he has conducted fire safety assessments on about 130 ships since he took command just weeks after the Bonhomme Richard fire and has so far found 24 issues that needed fixing. He said he has also conducted pulse surveys to get fleet feedback and has reinforced the ship captain’s authority to stop maintenance if he or she sees something that’s wrong or unsafe. Kitchener is also collecting data that looks across an entire repair yard in a holistic sense allowing for cumulative risk.

Finally, Kitchener has imposed a damage control red line; if a ship in maintenance has to shut down certain systems that can detect and suppress fires, this renders that ship no longer in compliance with the fire prevention and response manual. This will lead to a ship being taken out of service until it can be brought online again in line with the required safety features.