VIRGINIA BEACH, VA
Navy Region Mid-Atlantic Fire & Emergency Services (NRMA F&ES), Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story Fire Stations 5, 6, and 30 collaborated with the USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) ship forces, and the Virginia Beach Fire Department recently to conduct an integrated fire drill.
While managing a shipboard fire is a big undertaking, the intent of the recent drills was to manage the evolution in parts. Once the foundation of integrated communications and command structure is established, the focus will shift to long-term operations in the event the suppression system fails and the first strike resources cannot contain the fire.
There were several objectives of the drill:
- Determine the ability of ship forces to identify and isolate a fire, report the fire, mobilize additional resources, make the initial fire attack, and properly use the ship’s onboard fire suppression system.
- Test the integration of the tactical forces of the ship crew, Navy Fire, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach Fire Departments.
- Test the integration of command structures and the Unified Command setup
- Test the integrated communications.
“After reading the findings report of the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) fire that destroyed the ship in July, Navy Fire and local ships had similar concerns, and we’re very interested in looking at our procedures and our ability to integrate, said NRMA F&ES Assistant Fire Chief Cedric Patterson.
Crawl, Walk then Run
The crawl stage started in July with a meeting with the Navy Fire Department, Virginia Beach Fire Departments, and ship’s staff to talk-through the report findings. The meeting determined a plan of action for Whidbey Island’s exercise.
A ship familiarization walk-through was conducted in November with all partners to provide everyone with a common operating picture. The initial exercise was held on Dec. 6.
“The familiarization walk through allowed all parties to talk through their respective procedures and determine where procedural, communication or accountability gaps existed before the in-person exercise,” Patterson said.
“This is the first time that I am aware of, that we are exercising at this magnitude with a local ship since the BHR fire,” Patterson said, “we are taking their lessons learned as our starting point.”
During the walk, phase the three agencies tested their ability to establish 3-way communications, a working Incident Command Structure, as well as an integrated fire-attack team consisting of members from each agency.
The Incident Command Structure is important as it provides a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency responses by establishing a common hierarchy. It provides an integrated organizational structure that reflects the complexity and demands of single or multiple incidents, without being hindered by jurisdictional boundaries.
Establishing a fire-attack team is important because it dedicates personnel from all three organizations to assign duties and assignments.
“One of the gaps identified in pre-planning was maintaining accountability,” Patterson said. “It is imperative that everyone on the ship is accounted for as well as all responders fighting the fire. During this phase, we developed and tested a system to account for the location and assignment of all responders onboard. In addition to accountability, it was essential that we established a dedicated communications channel.”
“The run stage will be an expanded exercise that will encompass broader objectives that include the ability to sustain operations,” Patterson said
“Our goal was to practice the integration of three high functioning, but separate, teams: USS Whidbey Island, JEBLC-FS Fire Department, and Virginia Beach Fire Department,” USS Whidbey Island Public Affairs Officer Lt. j.g. Drew Hendricks said. “Largely, the purpose was to pre-emptively practice our communication and coordinated response efforts. Then, to identify areas of friction and develop individual and collective goals for future improvement.”
“We met and exceeded our goals! Not to say this was a perfectly smooth drill, but we identified unanticipated challenges that we can now collectively solve and work towards preventing in the future,” Hendricks said. “We're looking forward to testing our improvements on a future drill. This exercise, and efforts like these, can't be more important right now. In light of what we as a community, both in the armed forces and as a maintenance community, are learning as a result of the tragic loss of the Bonhomme Richard, it's a loss we can't afford to happen twice. So, we'll continue to practice - not until we get it right, but until we can't get it wrong.”
The exercise held on Dec. 6 provided some lessons learned that can be used for future exercises with the Whidbey Island and other ships on the installation. A similar exercise was held with the U.S. Coast Guard Ship Dependable.
“I think the firefighters and fire officers responding to the BHR gave their best effort in applying their level of training and planning to their perception of the incident,” Patterson said. “I don’t think the loss was due to a lack of effort or professionalism, but more due to a lack of planning and integrated training. We are fortunate to have the relationship with our mutual aid partners that we have. We frequently train together both on base in our response area and the city’s response area. All counterparts are familiar with one another, and when we respond together on the scene we all know each other by name.”
“Shipboard firefighting is one of the most dangerous endeavors we can take on in the fire service,” said NRMA F&ES District Fire Chief Kenneth Snyder. “It is critical that we rigorously train with all our partners on shipboard response. Shipboard firefighting requires exceptional coordination and teamwork because ships are hazardous industrial environments during normal conditions but when you add fire with associated smoke and other dangerous byproducts it can be a recipe for disaster for the unprepared. Navy Fed Fire continues to work with our ships’ crews and our municipal mutual aid partners to ensure we field the most expert firefighting force in the area.”