Go Navy!

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.

By all means, I do wish for all fire chiefs to have the same level of maximum support from their political leadership when they have to navigate through all the turbulent waters and the thick and thins that they must go through, especially during the current tough economic environments. But then there must be some sort of responsibility and accountability mechanism, and the buck must stop with someone. And just like anything in life, there is a limit, and sometimes you just need to cut the bait and let go.

The Navy did not make any hesitations to do just that with their $70 million fire mentioned above. What do you think the consequences would have been if they had nine deaths as a result of their fire? Court marshal, and long sentences? Maybe not, but then it sure would have been more severe than taking their command away, as they did.

What does Navy accomplish by taking such strict stance? They show to all their commanders that strict adherence to their regulations is their responsibility and they will be held accountable. Even though as I mentioned before, in a U.S. warship they are plenty of more immediate pressing military issues for the commander to be concerned with and fire prevention might be a lower priority. Yet, bottom line is they are held accountable and could lose their command even for the lowest of their priorities.

Why? Because they are the commanders at the helm, and are responsible for the safety of ship and the crew. How do you keep them accountable? By constantly drilling the message of safety home and clearly outlining the consequences of failure, in a sense establishing the safety culture in the first place; and then, by adhering to the provisions established in the formal disciplinary procedures for any fractures or violation.

Fact of the matter is that we in the fire service have systematically ignored our fire prevention responsibilities for decades. After all, that was exactly what the 1973 America Burning Report pointed out 35 years ago, wasn't it? After all these decades, we still haven't gone through with the paradigm shift recommended and focus more on the proactive means of addressing the fire problem in our country. And we haven't taken the necessary steps to evolve our organizational culture to put an end to the complacency and acceptance of failure. Navy on the other hand has taken measured steps forward and we in the civilian side can learn from them.

Yes, undoubtedly the fire chiefs have a lot on their plates and on a daily basis are trying to juggle with the variety of very many serious issues. But, it is hard to fathom that they are more burdened with other priorities and responsibilities than a commander of a U.S. aircraft carrier. After all, this is directly fire related, and ultimately enforcement of the fire prevention regulations is the responsibility of the fire chief. The Naval commander who is mainly responsible to protect the American interests in the high seas in the hostile zones around the globe gets his command taking away; yet the fire chief whose responsibilities are directly fire related in his own jurisdiction stay on board till retirement. Go figure!

What is the difference? Responsibility and accountability. Yes, quite clearly the national centralized command in the Navy, all the way down form the Secretary of Navy, definitely helps their organization to demand strict adherence to the well-established regulations, performance of their responsibilities, and enforcing accountability.

With us in the civilian fire service, although viewed as a paramilitary type of organization, since we share a similar process of chain of command; we definitely lack accountability at the very top. While in the Navy the "buck stops" with the Secretary of Navy, and he is even accountable to the President; there is not much accountability for our top fire service leaders.

After all with more than 32,000 fire departments around the county, we all have our own little local kingdoms, and the local jurisdictions are the masters of their own domain. No wonder all the great recommendations of the President Truman's 1947 Fire Prevention Conference, or the 1973 America Burning Report have not been implemented yet. Not that we don't have the knowledge or the game plan, but because we don't have the responsibility and accountability mechanism in place to implement the national programs at the local levels. We could learn valuable lessons from the Navy.

On June 18, IAFF's General President, Harold Schaitberger released a statement for the one year anniversary of the Charleston fire and it stated "you can't find any good in the tragic deaths of the nine courageous men who died last year. The scope of the tragedy did raise awareness in Charleston and in fire departments across North America about the catastrophic consequences that can result when current fire safety, staffing, command and operational methods and practices are not followed... If there is a positive that can come out of this terrible tragedy, it is this: The legacy of the Charleston Nine will be a safer, better equipped, better trained, properly staffed and fully updated fire department. I know this union is committed to that goal."

I agree with him with all my heart. We in the fire service owe it to our fallen brothers in Charleston, to make sure such tragedies do not happen in the future. I believe that because of the great work that Gordon Routley and his team did in preparing the Charleston reports, most fire service members are aware of the tactical fire suppression errors that might have occurred in that incident. But, the reports also clearly point out that enforcement of fire prevention regulations and absence of the fire sprinkler systems directly contributed to the magnitude of this catastrophe. And most in the fire service still have not gotten that message and continue to ignore fire prevention enforcement.

And that is why Schaitberger's statement "catastrophic consequences that can result when current fire safety, staffing, command and operational methods and practices are not followed" is so important. It reflects and relays to the IAFF membership the important message, that fire safety and prevention is an integral part of any efforts to protect the firefighters and preventing future catastrophes.

I believe that firefighters must fully embrace fire prevention as an essential part of their duties, in not only protecting their communities, but also in providing for their own safety, and insuring that everyone goes home to their families at the end of their shifts.

That is a major cultural shift from today's reality where fire prevention is viewed by most in the fire service as a low priority, unglamorous support task, performed while on light duty, or as a temporary stepping stone assignment in their promotional process. We in the fire service need to change our perspective of fire prevention and evolve our culture to better embrace it. Our own Navy did it, and we can and must learn from them.

Now talking about international perspectives and Navy, I must admit that because of all his extensive research in both those subjects, no one is more qualified and internationally better recognized as an authority, than my good friend Philip Schaenman with Tridata Division of Systems Planning Corp. Up to this point I wrote about the example of accountability in the Navy, but Phil has performed numerous research projects for the Navy on their fire prevention program and has written many reports on the subject. The following excerpt paragraphs from his March 2006 article in the Fire Chief magazine titled "First Class" is a mere glimpse, yet provides valuable insight into Navy's progressive views and importance of their fire prevention program.

"The Navy protects 1 million people worldwide on its installations, and it has about 1.7 fires per 1,000 population versus 5.3 fires per 1,000 in the general population. In other words, civilians have triple the Navy's rate of fires. The Navy also has had no fire fatalities for several years, versus 13 per million in the civilian sector. Injuries are low, as well. (In his peer review comment to my article, Schaenman says that as of August 2008, more recent Navy data on population protected suggests that the civilian rate may be "only" double the Navy rate, not triple.!)

In terms of dollar losses, Navy losses per fire are much lower than civilian losses for both residential and non-residential structure fires. While dollar loss estimates have many problems, we reviewed records of all fires over $100,000 in the Navy and instances where the Navy fire service believed it had averted larger losses. All evidence points to the low losses in the Navy being fact...

The excellent Navy fire record is the result of a variety of factors, some cultural. Because ship and aircraft fires can be disastrous to sailors, all Navy personnel are trained in firefighting and the dangers that may occur from fires at sea and on aircraft. This training carries over to onshore facilities and housing. The disciplined environment of military life contributes to awareness and carefulness, but safety doesn't just happen. It requires nurturing of safety attitudes, providing prevention information and developing skills to use when fire occurs.

The Navy fire prevention programs include comprehensive plans reviews, intensive inspections and code enforcement, near universal public education, and fire warden programs. For example, a larger percentage of structures are equipped with sprinkler systems than in the civilian sector, and families who live in base housing are indoctrinated from the outset about the expectations for maintaining safe quarters...

Another critical element of the Navy's fire prevention program is fire safety education for personnel, dependents and contractors. In general, public education promotes the Navy's cultural value of personal responsibility. It also provides information on how to prevent fires and reduce injuries, and what to do to reduce damage and casualties after ignition. A major difference between the Navy and civilian practice is that the Navy reaches more than 90% of personnel during indoctrination lectures when they first arrive at a new base; a large percentage also is reached through a variety of programs throughout the year...

Good prevention really does pay off. Although civilian fire departments don't operate in a military environment, the Navy model can be emulated in many ways, with the likelihood of an equally dramatic reduction in fire-related losses."

Our military's professionalism and high performance has always provided us in the fire service with great examples to follow. My friend Phil said it so well. We can't just simply copy the Navy's model that is based on the autocratic decision making and implementation processes into our democratic society of government of the people, by the people in America. Similar to the fact that due to the many cultural differences; we might not be able to merely copy the successful fire prevention models of the many other countries in Europe and Asia. But the key point is, that we can and must learn from them all; with the hope of developing our very own model/ or models, to better address the fire problem in our own country.

We can learn from the Navy's experience as an American model still in the developing stages. Navy should take pride in their accomplishments. Go Navy!

But we in the civilian fire service should not be mere cheerleaders on the sidelines. We should roll up our own sleeves, learn and then implement their successful fire prevention program.

Related Links

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.