Watchdog sounds alarm on the Navy’s fire preparedness

Government agency to US Navy: Only you can prevent ship fires.
The USS Bonhomme Richard fire
The USS Bonhomme Richard on July 13, 2020. Omar Powell / US Navy

On July 12, 2020, the USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire. The vessel is officially described as an “amphibious assault ship,” a name that doesn’t truly capture the Bonhomme Richard’s role as troop and vehicle transport; its flat top also lets it launch helicopters, V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, and special fighter jets. It was a complex, powerful machine—one that would be considered an aircraft carrier in any other nation’s navy—which makes the fact that a single fire was able to do over $3 billion in damage to it so remarkable. 

This month, the Government Accountability Office published a study into fire safety on Navy ships, which reached a clear and blunt conclusion: The US Navy needs to do more to study, track, analyze, and prevent future fires.  

What is particularly jarring about the accident that ultimately led to the decommissioning of the Bonhomme Richard is that it happened in port, in San Diego. The amphibious assault ship was docked so that it could receive about $250 million in upgrades to better let it accommodate F-35B jet fighters. Instead of upgrading the ship to serve for decades into the future, a poorly managed accident and a days-long firefighting response removed what had been a wholly functional ship from operational use.

The July 12, 2020 fire “started in the lower vehicle storage compartment onboard the USS Bonhomme Richard,” the report notes. “The fire burned for several days, spread to 11 of 14 decks, and reached temperatures in excess of 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit.”

The Bonhomme Richard fire was initially investigated as an arson, though the primary suspect was acquitted in court. The sailor’s defense made a compelling case that abundant other hazards on the ship, from poor lithium-ion battery storage to part of a lower deck being used like a junkyard, could be responsible for the fire.

Sparked, as it were, by Congressional inquiry into the destruction of the Bonhomme Richard, the GAO report set out to “review the Navy’s response to fire incidents aboard Navy ships as they undergo maintenance or modernization and to review the effects of the fires.” This inquiry specifically looked at how the Navy has responded to lessons learned, how the Navy has collected and analyzed data about such fires, what the Navy has done to manage staffing needs for fire response when ships are docked for maintenance, and how much of the Navy’s training for crew focuses on fire-safety for when the ship is docked for maintenance.

Such maintenance work is a dull inevitability of naval operations, and has been a fact of maritime life in some form or another for centuries. Sustainment work, the practice of ensuring long-lasting vehicles are able to actually function as desired, is far removed from the glamor and excitement of overseas patrol or active operation, but the consequences of leadership failures to maintain the ship can be just as severe as if the ship had been neglected in battle.

The GAO report cites several major incidents of fire on ships undergoing maintenance, starting with the USS Miami submarine in May 2012, up to the Bonhomme Richard in July 2020. While the Miami was docked in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, a painter and sandblaster working on the submarine set a fire, which he later confessed to NCIS investigators was an action he took in order to get out of work. Such a small act ultimately led to the Miami’s full decommissioning, as the estimated cost to repair was over $700 million. Following the destruction of the Miami, the Navy reviewed its process for fire investigations, with the goal of preventing future such disasters.

What the GAO report finds, more than a decade after the devastation of the Miami, is that the Navy is unable to follow its own best advice for tracking and mitigating such risks. The report notes that “Navy organizations use processes that inconsistently collect, maintain, and share fire safety-related and damage control lessons and best practices to improve fire safety on ships undergoing maintenance.”

These reporting problems continue through work on ships, where workers may see evidence of past fire damage or signs of risk but do not know the most appropriate way to file and share that information. Data entry is a dull task, and one of the obstacles found by GAO is that the system used to log such risk is slow, making it less likely that fire risk is logged.

Another challenge is simply that a docked ship is crewed less than a ship deployed. At sea, the whole of a crew lives on and sustains a ship, corresponding to crisis with full strength as appropriate. In port, crew are assigned elsewhere, taking leave, deploying to other missions, or even just taking training courses on land. That means the baseline occupancy of a ship is reduced, often by 5 percent but in at least once incident cited by up to 30 percent. That makes having personnel on hand to spot and respond to fires as they happen harder.

Ensuring the ship doesn’t get burnt down while docked for repairs is an important job, and one that should be staffed adequately, even if most of the time it’s dull duty for the crew assigned to it.

Ultimately, the report notes, “If the Navy had a designated organization to use existing information to analyze and respond to Navy-wide effects of fire incidents, then the Navy could better understand the magnitude of risks associated with ship-fire incidents and their effects on Navy operations or the nation’s strategic resources.”