Friday, June 6, 2008

Fire, Fire, Fire in Compartment.....

Of all the bad things that can happen at sea, probably nothing is more dreaded than a fire. Fire is what everyone trains for. Fire is why every sailor on every ship is required to complete a damage control qualification after reporting to each new ship.

Fire is why there is very little wood on a Navy ship. Other than a few decorative plaques, the only wood to be found on a modern Navy ship are the 4x4s used for shoring up damage and some plugs and wedges used for stopping leaks. This is a lesson that was learned with blood in the early days of World War II. You will not find a wooden ladder ("staircase" to you landlubbers) or wooden furniture. If you were to go into the Wardroom of a naval ship (the place where the officers eat and where the supply officers hang out), the furniture may look like they are made of wood and the bulkheads ("walls") may look as though they are wood, but it is all contact paper over metal.

The Navy is justifiably proud of its expertise in damage control. The rumor around the Fleet was that one of the reasons the HMS Sheffield was lost to an Argentinian Exocet missile was because the ship had wooden fixtures and ladders in parts of the ship and those items caught fire. The USS Stark was hit by two Iraqi Exocets. The one missile that hit the Sheffield did not detonate, while one of the Exocets that hit the Stark did explode. The USS Stark, after putting out the fires and stabilizing the damage, sailed away and eventually returned to the US under its own power.

There are a lot of factors that come into play, not the least being the prevailing weather and where the missiles struck, so the difference in the damage control readiness of the two ships may not be dispositive. The rumor was, however, that the British rapidly stripped their warships of wooden fixtures and furnishings.

If you look at a photo of a warship, you will see watertight hatches and doors. This photograph is from some civilian rustbucket:

Note the rubber gasket around the edge.

Now look at this photo (which is small):

The round door is called a "scuttle" and it is in the center of a larger hatch. You can see that there is a raised ring onto which the scuttle seats. That is called a "knife edge;" as you turn the locking wheel to tighten the scuttle down, the rubber gasket is mashed into the knife edge and that is what makes the closure watertight. If you now look back at the rustbucket's watertight door, you will see that the gasket is shot. It will be no more watertight than the average sieve.

Navy ships have a lot of watertight hatches and doors. It is the job of the Damage Control Petty Officer(s) (DCPO) in each division to maintain the WTHs and WTDs in the division's spaces. It is a pain to replace the gaskets, but the gaskets must be kept lubricated (with basically petroleum jelly) and replaced when they deteriorate. This is not rocket science, this is Damage Control 101.

At one point, I was invited to take a tour of a NATO warship. The ship was fairly new, was chock-a-block with weapon systems in a way that USN warships, which were designed to be able to remain at sea for much longer periods of time, were not. But as I walked around on the tour, I noticed that on every open watertight door and hatch, the gaskets were rotten. They were all shrunken, dried out and cracked. That warship had no watertight integrity and, in the event of a fire, it could not be made smoketight. The warship looked nice, it was clean and well-painted.

But it could not take a punch.

Damage control is the last line of defense against a loss of the ship. The USS Stark arguably seriously screwed up in its combat readiness, which is why she took two missile hits. But because her damage control was up to snuff, she survived and her crew came home.

The paramount importance of damage control readiness is a lesson the Navy learned the hard way. I doubt very much it has ever been forgotten.


physioprof said...

Excellent post! Is there a particular officer of the ship that is responsible for coordinating damage control readiness?

The Earth Bound Misfit said...

Yes, the Damage Control Assistant, known as the DCA. The Chief Engineer is the one who is responsible, as the Chief Engineer is also the Damage Control Officer. The DCA is the one who supposed to get it done.

physioprof said...


I think I've said this before, but you really gotta write a fucking book about this shit!

stephen said...

The Starke was practicing for their out chop OPPE at the time.