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NEWS | Dec. 16, 2022

Recognizing SUBSAFE Excellence

By Nick Scott Trident Refit Facility, Bangor

Nearly 60 years ago, April 9, 1963, while conducting deep-diving tests off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., USS Thresher (SSN 593) sank. At the time, this was the second worst submarine accident in history. Between the Sailors and shipyard personnel, 129 people perished that day.

Investigators concluded that Thresher had suffered the failure of a salt-water piping system joint that relied heavily on silver brazing instead of welding. The incident led to the creation of the Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) in 1963 and a complete change in safety checks and regulations that last to this day.

SUBSAFE is the quality assurance program of the United States Navy designed to maintain the safety of its submarine fleet. Specifically, this provides maximum reasonable assurance that submarine hulls will stay watertight and that they can recover from unanticipated flooding.

Since the full implementation of SUBSAFE to the entire submarine fleet in 1968, there have been no more incidents of this magnitude to date. The program is so effective that NASA uses it, working with the Navy since re-evaluating two of the biggest tragedies in that organization’s history, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

“The loss of the USS Thresher was the genesis of the SUBSAFE Program,” said Charlie Butler, quality assurance supervisor attached to Trident Refit Facility, Bangor (TRFB). Butler said that is why they named the SUBSAFE award the Thresher Memorial Award when it was created in January, 2021.

“This tragedy was the driver behind the creation of not only the greatest quality program the world has known, but a culture that would ensure that when we send these boats to sea, the men and women charged with carrying out the nation’s duties would return safely to their families after every deployment,” said Butler.

“This is a chance to recognize excellence within the SUBSAFE program at TRFB, It also keeps Thresher’s loss relevant 60 years later,” said Butler. “Everyone at the command plays a part in the SUBSAFE Program, no single individual can do their part without everyone else at the command participating.

Though this award is specific to TRFB, Butler said he is pushing to get this award recognized throughout the nation. Every sailor and civilian at TRFB is eligible for nomination.

“When personnel at the command typically have interaction with the SUBSAFE office it is generally after a discrepancy has occurred and steps are being taken to correct and prevent a reoccurrence,” said Christopher McNeil, SUBSAFE director for TRFB and creator of the Thresher Memorial Award.

“This award recognizes the great and impressive work people do day to day within the SUBSAFE program, it recognizes of excellence is positive reinforcement of program principles which will in turn decrease discrepancies in a proactive manner,” said McNeil. “It keeps TRFB’s SUBSAFE culture healthy.”

The candidates must be SUBSAFE qualified and working in the program as their day to day activity. They are nominated and selected based on their adherence to the five pillars of the SUBSAFE Program: Work discipline, Material Control, Documentation, Compliance Verification, and Culture.

Team members can receive nomination and win in one of three categories, military member, civilian and supervisor. Three TRFB team members received the award in 2022, Sonar Technician (Submarine) 1st Class Ryan Vankoningsveld, Jacob Holmes and Billy Albert.

“I felt pride in the fact that I was acknowledged for coming in and providing superior work to help keep my fellow sailors at sea safe,” said Vankoningsveld. “I have come to truly enjoy my job here and the people I work with and being acknowledged by my peers and the command to receive the award lets me know how much faith everyone has in me and makes me want to work harder”.