Go Navy!

The fire service can learn from the Navy's experience in culture and accountability.


In a July 30, 2008 article titled "U.S. Navy Boots Captain After Fire on Carrier", CNN reported that "The U.S. Navy fired the captain and executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington on Wednesday because of a massive fire that damaged the ship in May, Navy officials said. Capt. David C. Dykhoff and his executive officer, Capt. David M. Dober, were relieved of duty while the ship is in port in San Diego, California, for repairs. The two were fired because of practices on their ship that Navy investigators believe led to the fire, Navy officials said. The Navy officials said investigators believe the fire was started when a cigarette ignited material stored in an engineering room. Investigators found flammable liquids stored in an engineering area of the ship, which is strictly prohibited. Investigators also found that sailors were allowed to smoke in the same engineering areas, considered another violation."

Talk about command accountability. It can't be demonstrated any better than this example. The Navy is quite serious about its fire safety and protection programs. And the Navy's decision to relieve the highest officers of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington of their duties, due to their failure to enforce the strict fire prevention requirements on board their ship, sent a very strong and clear message to all their other commanding officers that complacency is by no means tolerated, and accountability is the bottom line.

Considering the monumental responsibilities, and the significance and sensitivities of the range of their duties on board the warships, most would think that fire prevention is the farthest priority for the commanding officer of a U.S. warship. But that simply isn't so. In the Navy culture, they are held highly accountable at all times for fire prevention and safety of their ship and their crew, and complacency is simply not tolerated.

Losing command over a fire caused directly by ignoring basic fire prevention measures that resulted in $70 million dollars worth of damage. What lessons do you think the rest of the Navy's commanding officers will learn from this incident? What lessons, can the rest of us in the civilian fire service learn from this? Just imagine what would happen if we in the fire service had the same exact levels of accountability, did not have any tolerance for complacency, and did just exactly as the Navy did and discharge officers over ignoring their fire prevention responsibilities. We would have quite a few unemployed fire chiefs, wouldn't we?

Now take a look at a recent well-known fire in the civilian side, that started very similarly and as a direct result of ignoring fire prevention measures and code enforcement, and then compare the results. Similarly, this particular fire also started from discarded cigarettes igniting combustible materials stored not in accordance with the requirements of the fire codes. That fire was the Charleston, SC, Sofa Super Store fire that took the lives of nine of our brothers from the ranks of the Charleston Fire Department. As I discussed in my previous article in June titled "Rolling the Dice" that fire was a direct result of ignoring fire prevention for very many years.

Take a look at the City of Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review, Phase 2 Report, and on page 84 you will find that "the fire is believed to have originated outside the loading dock, adjacent to the wooden ramp. Packing materials and discarded furniture were frequently piled in this area, awaiting pick-up by a disposal service. The source of ignition is believed to have been discarded smoking materials: the area adjacent to the ramp was used by Sofa Super Store employees as a smoking area."

The Navy took a couple of months after the fire in May, and issued their decisions to relive the responsible commanders of their duty in July. The city leaders in Charleston, instead never wavered their support for their fire chief; and he just resigned at his own will and retired a year later, just a few weeks ago.

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