Miami fire leads Navy to rewrite the book on firefighting

Falls Church, Va. — The Navy soon will require that shipbuilders take extra precautions so another ship is not destroyed by a fire.

In the aftermath of the blaze that severely damaged the USS Miami, Vice Adm. William Hilarides said, it became clear "we had forgotten how to fight big fires," particularly in shipyards. When a ship is mostly shut down, few people are on board and a "hodgepodge" of people — federal firefighters, local firefighters, the ship's crew and any shipyard workers who are around — are responsible for firefighting.

"As we've learned those lessons and tried to figure out what to do with all of that, it has been a significant challenge, and we wrote a new manual," he said.

Hilarides, the commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the new Navy technical manual for fire safety is on his desk, awaiting his signature. The manual imposes a "long list of requirements" for industrial activities on all classes of ships, he said.

Hilarides, who addressed Navy leaders, retired submariners and business executives at the Naval Submarine League's 31st annual symposium Thursday, said he has not signed it because the full cost of implementing the changes has not been determined. He described the new procedures outlined in the manual as "very, very expensive."

It costs about $1 million to run a large firefighting drill in a public or private shipyard, he said, but unequivocally, these drills must be done.

Hilarides said that in advance of the manual's approval, drills are taking place and additional monitoring devices are being installed on ships for when they are minimally manned, which are the "two main things that have to be done to make sure we don't have another Miami."

The Groton-based submarine was severely damaged at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in May 2012 when a civilian worker set a fire on board during a planned 20-month overhaul. The Navy said it would repair the ship but later decided to scrap the boat because of rising cost estimates and fiscal constraints.

Instead of approving a new budget, Congress enacted a continuing resolution that keeps spending at current levels. Congress also has not ended the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Without sequestration and continuing resolutions, Hilarides said, the Navy would be repairing the Miami now.

It will be "a sad day for the nation" when the Miami (SSN 755) is decommissioned because the submarine had 10 years and five deployments left in its service life, he said.

Hilarides thanked the league for its support as the members of his command recover from last month's shooting in their building at the Washington Navy Yard. He said he is focused on taking care of the victims' families and yard workers and getting everyone back to work, since keeping busy with meaningful tasks can help the healing process.

In the past two weeks, $1.6 billion was awarded in contracts, and several ships reached significant construction milestones, Hilarides said.

When he thinks about what the command has accomplished since the shooting, with people working from home, at contractors' facilities or scattered throughout other government buildings, Hilarides said, his "chest swells with pride."

"I could not be more proud of the organization's ability to operate under adverse conditions," he said. "I can't wait to see what they do when we're back together again."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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