THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Click for Navy statement
The Los Angeles-class submarine USS MIAMI caught fire last Wednesday while at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The fire was successfully extinguished and there were no serious casualties among the crew, shipyard firefighters, or civilian firefighters - quite a blessing, given the setting of the fire. 

I've never been aboard a modern submarine, but have toured a couple of WWII subs. If the spaces on USS MIAMI are anything like as constricted as those on the old subs, firefighting must be a nightmare! I've responded to fires in the relatively open space of a tugboat, and found it a frightening experience. So those who fought this fire have my wholehearted respect.

This would have been a good environment for the Naval Research Laboratory's firefighting robot SAFFiR (click "Fire Fighting Robot" in the Categories listing to the right of the page for that post). The two-legged equivalent of the air- or water-borne drone, SAFFiR is intended to be able to operate and interact on its own when necessary, and of course it doesn't need to breathe. It will be interesting to read about SAFFiR's first live shipboard firefighting test late next year. When you think about fighting a fire deep in the convoluted confined spaces of a submarine, a tool like SAFFiR has a lot of appeal.

The US Navy statement contains the basic facts about the fire, and can be found by clicking the sub's logo above - that will take you to Maritime Executive's site. And here's a good late wrapup from The Morning Sentinal, of Waterville, Maine, near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the fire took place. It addresses the possibility that the sub may just be scrapped - and the effect that might have on the Navy's readiness, and on the local community, who depend on the shipyard for jobs.

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Fighting USS MIAMI fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
According to the Navy, no weapons were aboard at the time of the fire, and the nuclear reactor was undamaged. The fire burned primarily in the fore part of the sub, affecting living and command & control spaces. Many expensive components had been removed for the overhaul, and were thereby saved from damage.  So an argument could be made for rebuilding the sub and putting her back into service. SSN 755 MIAMI represents about 2% of US submarine capability. 

But it was also also noted that this class sub, the Los Angles class - although "improved" and updated - represents cold war technology and might not be worth rebuilding. The Navy will make a decision after evaluating the damage.

This incident seems a little different from the YEKATERINBURG nuclear sub fire in Murmansk last December. In that case, an external scaffolding fire ignited the sub's rubber armor, and the sub had to be partially sunk to finally extinguish the fire. Some of the YEKATERINBURG's crew stayed on board during the fire, according to reports. Here is a gCaptain blog post from 30 December, telling about as much as was known at that time about that fire.


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Firefighters battle YEKATERINBURG blaze in December, 2011
However, a later article in the Russian magazine Vlast stated that the Russian Navy's claim that no nuclear weapons were aboard YEKATERINBURG during the fire was false. According to a Huffington Post report dated 14 February, Vlast quoted several sources in the Russian navy as saying that throughout the fire on Dec. 29 the submarine was carrying 16 R-29 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads"Russia, for a day, was on the brink of the biggest catastrophe since the time of Chernobyl," Vlast reported. 

YEKATERINBURG also had torpedoes and mines aboard at the time, and the fear was that if one of them exploded, the nuclear missiles and their warheads could have been affected. But Russian Navy spokesmen said that the nuclear missile areas are hardened and would not have been breached. Thank God, we didn't have to find out!

Shipboard firefighting is hard, dangerous work. We've all trained for it, and many of us have had to fight one. But I can't think of anything much worse than fighting a fire aboard a submarine. In both of these cases - MIAMI and YEKATERINBURG - things seem to have gone about as well as possible (except for the fire starting in the first place). But I look forward to learning more about both of these incidents, don't you? No matter how good the outcome, things are sure to have gone wrong; and that's how we learn.

Do you have any experience fighting shipboard fires, especially in the Navy? Comment and tell us about your experience!