All Hands on Deck: A Preparedness Analysis of Municipal Fire Department Mutual Aid During Fires Aboard U.S. Navy Vessels

– Executive Summary

Major fires aboard U.S. Navy (USN) vessels undergoing maintenance routinely require mutual aid assistance from nearby municipal fire departments for extinguishment. History has shown that the spontaneous merging of fire agencies during these dynamic incidents brings inherent operational challenges.[1] Differing levels of shipboard firefighting proficiency, equipment compatibility, and methods for assessing risk are examples of integration challenges.[2] This thesis investigates the preparedness levels of municipal fire departments and federal firefighting entities in performing mutual aid during a major fire aboard a USN vessel in port for maintenance. The research involved studying mutual aid integration during two real-world fires aboard USN vessels, a ship fire policy analysis of three municipal fire departments, and findings from interviews with subject-matter experts from agencies associated with mutual aid fire operations.

This thesis includes two case studies. The first is the fire aboard the USS Miami (SSN-755) in May 2012 while under repair at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The second case study examines the July 2020 fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) while receiving repairs at Naval Base San Diego in California. The published investigative findings of both incidents identify concerns with the preparedness and integration of the mutual aid provided by nearby municipal fire departments. Case study findings in this thesis include shipboard firefighting deficiencies, troubled incorporation of mutual aid, incompatible equipment, asynchronous risk calculations, inadequate information sharing, and poor interoperable communication.

The policy analysis compares shipboard firefighting response plans of the New York City Fire Department, Seattle Fire Department, and Everett Fire Department, which represent the greater fire services’ approach to shipboard firefighting. The analysis criteria used for this evaluation are vessel familiarization, interagency communications plans, and unified command considerations. The supporting reference document is municipal fire industry standard National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires.[3]

This thesis includes personal accounts from individuals providing and coordinating firefighting responses on USN ships. Their first-hand accounts convey the challenges of integrating municipal fire departments into shipboard firefighting operations. The interviews revealed three principal inclinations: municipal fire departments across the country maintain varying degrees of marine firefighting preparedness; collaborative relationships between local fire departments, the federal fire department (FFD), and the USN are critical to mutual success; and some challenges impede municipal fire department compliance with the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA)’s S0570-AC-CCM-010/8010, Industrial Ship Safety Manual for Fire Prevention and Response, and the aforementioned NFPA 1405.[4]

A tremendous discrepancy exists between the USN’s apparent expectation for municipal fire departments to perform mutual aid firefighting aboard USN vessels during maintenance and a reciprocating emphasis on maintaining this unique capability by municipal fire department leadership. These research findings substantiate that municipal fire departments are inconsistently prepared to perform mutual aid firefighting aboard USN vessels. Despite published expectations, such as NFPA 1405 and NAVSEA’s 8010, not all municipal fire departments expected to respond to USN vessel fires are prepared to perform mutual aid firefighting to the same extent.

The fundamental origins of the preparedness inconsistencies experienced by municipal fire departments stem from three existing gaps—capability prioritization, dedicated resourcing, and joint training participation. The USN has placed an inordinate expectation on municipal fire departments to perform shipboard firefighting with disproportionate direction and resourcing. The preparedness incongruities identified in this research could improve with shared prioritization among federal and municipal leadership. Such congruence would be an initial step toward broadening municipal fire departments’ focus on establishing and maintaining baseline mutual aid firefighting capabilities.

Currently, the USN expects to receive mutual aid shipboard firefighting capabilities, for which municipal fire departments bear the cost to maintain. Local government budget constraints deter fire department leadership from allocating limited budgetary resources toward maintaining discretionary capabilities. The infrequent need to perform shipboard firefighting on USN vessels perpetuates the decision to limit the investment in this skill set. Having dedicated federal resources to support the expected capabilities would aid in overcoming identified barriers, such as budget constraints and equipment incompatibilities.

Although not a tactical firefighting strategy typically contained in standard operating guidelines, land-based fire departments that respond to marine vessel fires would benefit from establishing a formal policy that commits to participation in joint training.[5] Agencies that train together exercise and refine their response plans while building understanding and trust through shared experiences. This synergy occurs routinely within individual organizations but becomes more challenging when multiple agencies must come together for collective training. By nature, the simulation of a mutual aid response requires supporting agencies to participate in an external event. Interactions with others lead to formal and informal information sharing. In a training environment, participants experience first hand the capabilities and limitations of all entities. This knowledge builds a foundation upon which to draw during an actual incident. Recognition-primed decision-making research shows that critical decision-making in high-stress environments, such as a major ship fire, is regularly influenced by the familiarity of the scenario.[6] The speed of attack directly correlates to how quickly individuals can relate to what they are encountering. Acquaintance with interagency operations best occurs through participation in joint training. A tremendous benefit of joint training opportunities is that responders can gain exposure to worst-case scenarios without the associated consequences. Such training builds a repertoire of experiences that individuals can draw from when facing something similar. Training like this is even more crucial for municipal fire departments that provide mutual aid support during shipboard fires since they do not face such unique scenarios in their daily operations.

[1] K. M. McCoy, “Final Command Investigation into the Fire That Occurred onboard USS Miami (SSN 755) at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on 23–24 May 2012” (official memorandum, Washington, DC: Naval Sea Systems Command, 2013),‌ReadingRoom/201411130821.pdf; Department of the Navy, Command Investigation into the Fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), 12 July 2020 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2021),

[2] Department of the Navy, Investigation into the Fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, 263–66.

[3] National Fire Protection Association, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, NFPA 1405 (Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 2020), https://www.‌

[4] Naval Sea Systems Command, Industrial Ship Safety Manual for Fire Prevention and Response, S0570-AC-CCM-010/8010 (Washington, DC: Naval Sea Systems Command, 2014), https://www.navsea.‌‌Version_26Aug14_smooth.pdf?ver=4-FPh-fXVS8Z1HOZP1xRJg%3D%3D&timestamp=1625589459300.

[5] National Fire Protection Association, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, NFPA 1405 (Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 2020), 1405-34,‌code=1405; U.S. Fleet Forces Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet, Major Fires Review: Executive Summary (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2021),‌HotTopics/BHR%20and%20MFR%20Investigations/For%20Release%20Major%20Fires%20Review%20(19%20Oct%2021).pdf; U.S. Navy Fire and Emergency Services, “Shipboard Firefighting—Fire Chief Summit,” Chief Alert 2021-11 (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy Fire and Emergency Services, 2021); Department of the Navy, Investigation into the Fire aboard USS Bonhomme Richard.

[6] Gary A. Klein and Roberta Calderwood, Investigations of Naturalistic Decision Making and the Recognition-Primed Decision Model (Alexandria, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, 1996), 7,

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