Ever Present Danger

Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor of An Cosantóir, this is my article which featured in the February 2019 Edition.

Ever Present Danger.

The smoke is acrid, thick and hot. It forms an oppressive layer above the lurid yellow helmets of the firefighting team. Heat radiates from the burning fire in the corner of the cabin in front of them. The noise of the water as it bounces of the deckhead and deck is deafening, the steel structure reverberates and the team leaders shouts out his commands through the life persevering facemask of his breathing apparatus. All commands have a purpose, each given with an intensity befitting the seriousness of the situation; while each response is repeated quickly and verbatim, once the command has been executed the team leader is informed immediately. There is no place for an individual here; only by working as a team will these five sailors fight their way through hatches and down ladders, deeper into the burning vessel they press on, negotiating the total darkness to find the seat of the fire. Their shipmates’ lives depend upon it.

There is no room for fear or failure during a fire at sea.

Advanced Marine Damage Control and Fire Fighting.

The training exercise described above is the experience of the last Advanced Marine Damage Control and Fire Fighting course of 2018; although conducted in the relative safety of the fire yard training modules of the NMCI, the seriousness of the evolutions and exercises are lost on none of the students. All officers and NCOs of seagoing units, they are here to renew their certificates and ensure that their training is up to date with the current doctrine and SOPs of the Naval Service (NS). Each sailor is a trained marine firefighter. All these students occupy command and control appointments in the emergency response structure onboard Irish warships, from the officer commanding the warship to the Petty Officer in control on DCFF co-ordination at nearest habitable compartment to the scene of the fire or damage control incident. There are two DCFF courses delivered to NS students, a three-day course which is the basic requirement for each sailor and a five-day advanced course which is a requirement for all command and control appointments.

The courses are intensive, each day been filled with knowledge which must be absorbed and understood to progress safely. The basic course teaches fire and damage control theory, from the fire triangle[1] to DCFF shoring techniques. It teaches doffing and donning of the fire fighting suits. It teaches breathing apparatus (BA) and emergency escape breathing apparatus (EEBA) use. It teaches search and lifeline techniques. It teaches first aid firefighting appliances which include fire blankets and hose reels. It teaches full team door and hatch entry. Each lesson been delivered and practiced until the standard is met.

The advanced course puts the students through the basic course and ensures that they are fully refreshed, then it rotates the students into roles such as the Damage Control Officer (DCO) and IC of the Forward Control Point (IC FCP). They must communicate via radios while the fire training unit blazes beside them and smoke billows from the compartments. Under the watchful eye of the instructors, the students must make plans, deliver them to the fire team on scene and build a picture of the developing incident on the incident boards using standard markings. As the incident progresses during the final exercises, the information flows thick and fast over the comms net. The board fills up as multiple teams go on and off air, relief teams hot bottle change and stand by from re-entry. The scenario is altered without warning, causing the students to adapt to the new threat and change the plan of attack. The training is measured yet intense because it needs to be. The goal is to build the students confidence in their roles, giving them the skills to achieve their mission in the event of a fire or flood at sea. Operating hundreds of miles from support, in the toughest oceans on the planet, the crew must look to themselves first for survival. Their vessel is their best lifeboat and everything must be done to ensure it is kept afloat.

The Fireyard

The Marine Fire Fighting students are thought by Naval Service instructors in the DCFF Training School (also known as the Fire Yard) at the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI). To serve as an instructor in this college, the Hull Artificer and Mechanicians must pass the gruelling Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Damage Control  (CBRNDC 35) course at the Royal Navy school ‘HMS Excellent’[2], which is home to the Royal Naval Headquarters and front-line training units. Based on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, its DCFF training facilities include the Phoenix Damage Repair and Instructional Unit – known throughout the Royal and Irish Navy’s as DRIU, pronounced ‘drew’ – is a mock-up of a flooding ship which rocks and rolls as sailors try to plug gaps in the hull using wood and its fire training unit replicates compartments on board a warship such as engine rooms, machinery control rooms, mess decks, galleys and passageways. The fires inside are gas-powered – making them environmentally-friendly – and supported by smoke generators, can be controlled by tutors. There they are trained to the exacting standards of a navy who have learned their lessons in war, for example during some of the most horrendous actions of the Falkland’s war.

These facilities are amongst the most advanced in the world, however, the more basic facilities available at the NMCI are more than capable to provide a challenging training environment for all the students. The DCFF School is one of the busiest of the Naval College sub-schools, with hundreds of students passing through its classrooms each year. PO/Mallon explains that ‘We are also responsible for the delivery of DCFF training to the civilian students who are here in the NMCI. Our Naval training is kept in line with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) requirements. That can be a challenge in itself.’

PO/HA Keith Mallon is the senior instructor with the college and I asked him to describe what he considers the most important aspects of the training are. ‘I’d sum them up as Knowledge, Competency and Realism.’ He expanded on each aspect, ‘We have to ensure that our training is at the correct level and is keep current. That’s the Knowledge element.’ ‘Then we have to ensure the competency of not just the students who must leave here able to perform in a competent manner in their assigned roles, but also our instructional staff must be of the first rate, they must insist that the standard is maintained. There is no room for error.’ He then describes the efforts that are placed into this third point. ‘Realism is so important. We have to be training with the kit we use each day on the ship. We must start off with the basic building blocks of theory and drills, then build on that foundation. Apply measured pressure to the students, we mentor the weaker ones and challenge the leaders.’

FORST.

The other vital part of DCFF training in the Naval Service is the Fleet Operational Readiness, Standards and Training unit (FORST). FORST achieves its mission by assisting ships’ Officers Commanding by providing guidance, sea training and assessment to generate and maintain the five pillars of operational capability[3]. The training received by the instructors in delivered at the standard as set by FORST, which in turn ensures that the training, SOPs and drills been used out in the fleet are maintained at that standard. In order to achieve this, the FORST section coordinates the efforts of Operations, Support and Naval College Commands to ensure that a Plan/Do/Check/Adjust loop is completed, tailored to each individual ship.

Plan: FORST plans the correct approach to achieve the op capability based on the requirements directed by the OCNOC and in liaison with Support & Naval College Commands.

Do: FORST co-operates with Naval College & Support Commands to ensure delivery of high-quality service to the fleet that is constantly changing to meet current demands.

Check: FORST checks the standards, equipment, personnel training competencies and op capability through assessment and sea training.

Adjust: Having worked through the first three stages FORST will now, by advising of the necessary adjustments to training and support efforts through feedback from the fleet after assessment and sea training.

They also carry out research into new techniques or equipment to better enable the front-line sailors to cope with whatever is thrown at them. The exercises which are directed by FORST will out on the ships range from the most basic accommodation fire drills, to elaborate multiple incident events where simulated fires, flooding and casualties are used test the crew’s ships knowledge, their DCFF competence and their intestinal fortitude to overcome the challenges and save their ship.

Bí Ullamh.

All of this training translates into a highly coordinated response to any event by a well-drilled crew. Onboard each vessel while underway at sea, designated emergency response teams are in place at all time and will respond instantly to the sound of the fire alarm or other emergencies. The Standing Sea Emergency Party (SSEP) will normally consist of the Chief Petty Officer Engine Room Artificer (CPO/ERA) and three other NCOs. The Attack Breathing Apparatus team (A/BA) will normally consist of two personnel. The Containment Team will normally consist of the Petty Hull Artificer (PO/HA) and one other. On the first sound of the alarm, wherever these eight sailors are or whatever they are doing; they will react instantly. Some will switch on their radios and begin to don their anti-flash hoods and gloves over their General Duty Rig (GDR), and the A/BA team will head to one of the two A/BA stations, where their pre-checked BA sets are on stand-by. Within seconds a pipe will be broadcast over the entire ship indicating the location of the alarm which has been set off. Arriving at the scene of the alarm, the SSEP will be fully prepared to face a fire with first aid firing fighting appliances, such an extinguisher or center feed hose reel, this is because every alarm will be treated as an actual fire/incident until the SSEP has determine it is not. To do otherwise would be to risk allowing a minor fire to take hold and spread in the time which would be wasted. The IC of the SSEP will then investigate and report no fire or call the ship to emergency stations. That pipe of ‘Emergency Stations’ will rouse the entire crew to muster at their stations.

Every sailor onboard is a firefighter and fire is the ever-present danger.

[1] Fuel, Oxygen and Heat.

[2] Royal Naval installations and schools are designated HMS in the same manner as Royal Naval vessels.

[3] Operational Viability, Sustainability, Readiness, Interoperability and Deployability.


2 thoughts on “Ever Present Danger

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  1. Excellent and very enjoyable article. I remember doing our annual firefighting training on LÉ Aisling (circa 1990/1) during refit period. We set sail soon afterwards and had a relatively serious fire onboard during a very heavy storm which thanks to the training by all the crew was dealt with quickly, effectively and efficiently.

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    1. Go raibh maith agat Colm. Aisling had her fair share of fires. There was one in the mid ’00s that was exceptionally serious, and years before that the one on the ammo run from Wales on the 19th of Nov 1981 (which earned the C/ERA Peadar Tumulty & PO/ERA Micheal McIntyre their DSMs.)

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