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Fire rules revamped for shipyards after blaze

Feb. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
A firefighter walks off the attack submarine Miami on May 24, 2012, after fighting a fire that caused $700 million in damage.
A firefighter walks off the attack submarine Miami on May 24, 2012, after fighting a fire that caused $700 million in damage. (Navy)
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An arsonist damaged the dry-docked attack submarine Miami beyond repair in 2012, unleashing a super-hot blaze that took crewmembers and firefighters 12 hours to extinguish. It also revealed the Navy needed to overhaul its firefighting strategies for dry-docked subs, which have onboard systems largely depend on the sea water intakes when secured in the yards.

To prevent similar fires from getting out of hand, the Navy ordered installation of fire detectors on all dry-docked subs and annual fire drills as part of a new fire safety and prevention manual that applies to all public and private shipyards.

The manual released Feb. 6 outlines prevention and safety regulations for all ship availabilities, such as the dry dock overhaul the Miami had been undergoing at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, when the fire broke out.

“Navy leadership recognized a clear need to raise our standards and capabilities, and develop cost-effective solutions to improve fire prevention, detection, immediate response and extended response for ships undergoing industrial maintenance,” Vice Adm. William Hilarides, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a news release.

On the prevention side, the manual outlines how to deal with flammable and combustible materials and other hot work in industrial availability, including techniques and safety inspections. And it orders submarines to install a temporary automatic fire detection system during availabilities.

Annual fire drills are required for every ship repair and construction activity as a test of local fire response crews, who are especially critical when a dry-docked vessel catches fire.

“This manual is the right long-term response to the watershed event the Miami fire represents,” Hilarides said. “It is imperative that all organizations implement the applicable requirements of this manual and ensure their fire safety and response procedures and capabilities are solid.”

Because the manual covers the full range of ship availabilities, it’s up to commands to implement the appropriate measures for their situations. There are tiers of risk mitigation based on different types of work performed, for the sake of flexibility.

“I expect thoughtful consideration by the naval shipyards, Regional Maintenance Centers, Trident refit facilities, fleet maintenance activities, private repair shipyards, new construction shipyards and ships in determining how to apply the requirements for each availability,” Hilarides said. “Organizations are expected to be judicious and make smart decisions to achieve an optimum balance of all the risks — fire safety, as well as cost and schedule.”

The hope is that these upgraded safety and response measures will prevent another catastrophe like Miami, which the Navy decided was too damaged to repair after spending $71 million on cleanup, planning and initial repairs following the fire. It became the Navy’s first dry-docked ship lost to sabotage in the modern era.

The Navy announced in August 2013 that it would abandon plans to restore Miami after the repair crew discovered more damage than earlier assessments, driving the cost of repairs up from $450 million to $700 million.

“We will lose the five deployments that Miami would have provided over the remaining ten years of her planned service life, but in exchange for avoiding the cost of repairs, we will open up funds to support other vital maintenance efforts, improving the wholeness and readiness of the fleet,” Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, said in a statement made about the decision to scrap the Miami.

Now, shipyard workers will remove fuel from the nuclear reactor and repair Miami enough that she can be towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington State for scrap. Inactivating the sub, the Navy told the Associated Press last year, will cost around $54 million.

The man responsible for the Miami fire, a civilian shipyard worker, was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $400 million in restitution in March 2013 after he pleaded guilty to setting the fire on May 23, 2012.

Casey James Fury, then 25, admitted that he set rags on fire aboard the sub because he wanted to go home early. The blaze seared through the ship’s forward torpedo and control rooms, in the process injuring seven firefighters during the 12 hours it took to extinguish.

He set another fire outside of the sub three weeks later, though it caused no damage. He pleaded guilty to two counts of arson.■

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