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Damage Control Training Makes Sailors Feel The Heat

Hot topic: training sailors to fight fires, control damage, and help them save their ship

For sailors on a fighting ship, fire is not a friend. But don’t be alarmed. Shipboard damage control training ensures crews are well trained.

Warships must be lethal, able to inflict damage. They must also be survivable, and able to absorb damage and maintain mission integrity. Loaded with fuel and explosives, any fire or damage could be catastrophic. Firefighting on a warship combines urgency with danger, combustion with adrenaline.

U.S. Navy and French Navy Sailors Train Together

U.S. Navy and French navy sailors assigned to the guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) and the French navy destroyer FS Cassard (D614) train together during a damage control drill aboard Vicksburg.  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nick C. Scott

There are new technologies and concepts in training for shipboard casualties. But realistic training ultimately requires sailors to fight fires face-to-face. A variety of firefighting, damage control and survival training facilities are available around the world, where the trainees can feel the heat.

A crew must be trained to do the right thing, and do it quickly. Thorough and realistic training can truly save lives, and the ship, especially before the extent of the damage gets out of control. According to a World War II Navy manual, The Handbook of Damage Control, published by the Naval Damage Control Training Center, Philadelphia in May 1945, “If the ship does not sink within a very few minutes after damage, she probably will survive for several hours.”


Realistic Damage Control Training

Approximately 8,000 students per year are trained in live firefighting techniques at the U.S. Navy’s Officer Training Command (OTC) in Newport, RI. Students from OTC and Surface Warfare Officer School, along with Naval Readiness Command One, the U.S. Naval Academy, Coast Guard, and foreign navies are trained here. The 19F3A Trainer is a three-story building which can simulate ship’s engine, boiler, and supply rooms, CIC, laundry, electrical, berthing and galley compartments, and  simulates 15 different types of shipboard fires by burning propane gas and dispersing non-toxic simulated smoke. It is a busy place, employed on a 10 hour per day, five day per week, and 50 week per year schedule.

“If the ship does not sink within a very few minutes after damage, she probably will survive for several hours.”

The Handbook of Damage Control, Naval Damage Control Training Center, Philadelphia, May 1945

OTC’s damage control trainer, affectionately known as USS Buttercup, is the U.S. Navy’s only free-floating flooding trainer. New officers learn shipboard damage control procedures and techniques, then demonstrate proficiency in the trainer as water floods through a variety of broken pipes, cracks and holes and they try to stop the flooding and save the ship. The trainer lists up to ten degrees during the flooding simulation.

U.S. Navy Damage Control Training

Damage Controlman 2nd Class Erik Borgess, an instructor at the Damage Control A School, helps a midshipman from the University of Memphis Naval ROTC unit egress from a flooding shipboard compartment in the Wet Trainer of the Damage Control A School. The 18 midshipmen participated in Navy training and toured Recruit Training Command. U.S. Navy photo by Scott A. Thornbloom

All U.S. Navy recruits undergo a capstone experience called Battle Stations 21 at the conclusion of their training at Great Lakes. Each recruit division spends an entire night in the USS Trayer, which simulates a guided missile destroyer. The recruits practice everything they’ve learned in Boot Camp, as they handle stores, fight fires, move ammunition from flooded compartments and respond to casualties. At the end of the immersive, realistic and exhausting series of scenarios, they remove their “Recruit” ball caps and are presented with U.S. Navy sailor ball caps.

Other firefighting and damage control trainers are located at different fleet concentration areas, such as Norfolk, Great Lakes, Mayport and San Diego. Submarine damage control trainers are located at the Submarine School in New London as well as at other submarine ports.   The United States also employs contractor training. Fremont Maritime Services in Seattle provides High Risk Firefighting and Damage Control Training Courses for Navy, Coast Guard and Army Watercraft personnel, as well as commercial customers.

Firefighting trainers used to use kerosene. In the case of a helicopter trainer, the “aircraft” would be doused with fuel and ignited, and the fire party being trained would approach and extinguish the fire. In some cases, this resulted in petroleum seeping into the earth and the groundwater. Today, all U.S. Navy firefighting trainers use propane.

The Royal Australian Navy’s School of Ship Survivability and Safety near HMAS Creswell on Jervis Bay is a CBRN and damage control training facility and includes two firefighting training units and a ship simulator with floodable compartments known as “Counter-Sink.”

The Royal Navy’s Sea Survival Training Center at Horsea Island in Portsmouth, U.K., trains sailors in the proper wearing of life jackets and survival suits; abandoning ship procedures; deployment and management of life rafts; effective operation of emergency location aids; treating the sick and injured, including ‘cold shock’ and exposure in open water.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...