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NEWS | March 16, 2023

Shipboard fire a constant threat: Bonhomme Richard tragedy an enduring lesson in fire prevention, response

By Ben Hutto, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

July 12, 2020 was a lazy Sunday morning at Naval Base San Diego. USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), which had been commissioned only two years earlier, had recently made the base its new homeport and was docked as it underwent a maintenance availability.

But, the silence of that morning was rocked by an explosion a few minutes before 9 a.m., changing everything for the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship.

Below the decks, cloth, rags, paper, lithium batteries and other hazardous material had been improperly stored and created the ideal conditions for a fire. Additionally, during the refit process, the on-board fire suppression systems had been disabled as crews worked to ready the ship for its next deployment. These conditions and more led to a shipboard fire that would not be fully extinguished for five days.

The intense heat from the flames melted metal and caused the flight deck to bulge and warp. The damage was so great that the forward mast of the ship collapsed under its own weight. Of the ship's 14 decks, 11 sustained significant fire and water damage. After the five-day ordeal was over, 63 workers would be admitted into the hospital for minor injuries.

In the months following the fire, the Navy estimated it would require between $2.5 - $3.2 billion worth of repairs and an estimated five to seven years to rebuild and repair the ravaged ship. In light of those findings, the ship was taken out of service, had its critical components removed and was sold for scrap.

While Bonhomme Richard is one of the Navy’s most high-profile ship fires, it is far from the only one in recent years. Here at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility, shipboard fires represent a constant threat that requires constant vigilance.

These fires are an especially unique danger because of their location. Being out on the water or in drydock limits the ability for firefighters to gain access and fight shipboard fires as effectively as they can on land. The limited mobility and tight quarters combined with the obstacle of temporary service lines on ships also make factors like smoke inhalation, heat and flames much more difficult to avoid and combat.

With all that in mind, PSNS & IMF is renewing its efforts on shipboard fire safety by calling attention to four principles every employee needs to know to keep our people and our ships safe:

Prepare: Be ready for a fire

When a fire breaks out, do you know what to do? The first step in preparation involves a trained workforce understanding safety plans and planning work to avoid fire risks. Our workforce must be able to identify the gaps in their training, the readiness of our equipment, and make a consistent effort to mitigate deficiencies.

Prevent: Minimize the potential for fire

What are you doing to prevent your work from causing a shipboard fire? This principle helps guide workers as they make decisions regarding hot work. It also teaches workers how to manage risks in maintenance phases, change in equipment status and transitions (pierside to drydock, etc.) that will need to be made to sustain an effective safety posture. Understanding how to properly store and contain materials that can feed a fire are also key components of this principle. To ensure prevention is being employed, leaders and team members need to accommodate oversight from the shipyard’s fire safety organization, ensuring compliance.

Protect: Allow firefighting teams to quickly respond to a fire

If a fire breaks out, do you know how to react? When smoke and flames break out does the workforce have clear and illuminated pathways to get to safety? Workers are asked to stay vigilant for signs of a fire. Under the Protect principle, workers will know how to notify and direct personnel to help support evacuation and allow firefighting teams to respond.

Respond: Take action to minimize the spread of fire

Do you know what to do when flames break out? The final shipboard safety principle helps workers in making sound choices if fire breaks out.

Employees should know how to respond immediately to threats, call for shore-based firefighters and rescue assistance, and enact evacuation and accounting of personnel. Understanding concepts like controlling access points and air flow are also instrumental in keeping a serious fire from becoming a fatal fire.

While the work at PSNS & IMF never stops, an uncontrolled fire could undo all the work that goes into maintaining our nation’s fleet. Many of the industrial processes used by our trades involve high-heat and pose a risk to ignite when energized. Shipboard fire safety is focused on minimizing these risks and overcoming the challenges they present. When we practice shipboard fire safety, we help ensure that our teammates go home safe to their families and that the Fleet is able to uphold its position as the most dominant naval force on the globe.