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Training and Education

Worst Case Scenario

Damage control is every Sailor's responsibility

In July 1967, aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59) experienced one of the most costly at-sea fires the Navy has seen since World War II.


After a missile malfunctioned and fired aboard the ship from an F-4B Phantom II, a series of explosions and a subsequent fire claimed the lives of 134 crew members. The crew was poorly trained on how to respond to an incident of that magnitude, so efforts to save the ship from complete destruction lasted hours and left an additional 300 men injured. From the fire and flames, however, came the birth of modern naval damage control.

Fast forward to 2018, and Sailors from around the fleet come to Norfolk on a weekly basis to experience live fires and flooding in a controlled environment, to prepare for what could happen while at sea. With the Farrier Fire Fighting School, the U.S. Navy has given its men and women the opportunity to train for worst-case scenarios.

"Here at Farrier, we try to give as much realistic training as possible to the fleet by using [the USS Buttercup Wet Trainer], using live fires to try to get people used to fighting real casualties - as close as possible and keeping it as safe as possible," said Chief Damage Controlman Kenya Wilson, an instructor at the school. "We can do multiple things, from fires to flooding, training to dewatering. Anything that we can do that can possibly happen on a ship, we can train for here."

The school is named for Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Gerald W. Farrier, who lost his life aboard Forrestal while attempting to extinguish ordnance that caught fire. In his memory, the Navy created what Wilson described as "a one-stop shop" that hosts tens of thousands of students each year for both classroom instruction and hands-on experience.
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Firefighting coursework includes lessons on how to use protective gear, what types of fires students may encounter, how to properly combat them and what extinguishing methods to utilize. As for flooding, students learn how to identify the intensity of incoming water and whether to plug or patch a hole in a ruptured pipe or wall, as well as how to use shoring and dewatering tools to maintain the structural integrity of a space.

Once instructors are certain students have a working knowledge of how to overcome each potential obstacle, training goes from hypothetical to practical.

"It's been quite the experience," said Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Brittany Anderson, a student en route to guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75). "You get here and get the briefs, the PowerPoint presentations and instruction on what's going to happen and how to handle it. Then the on-the-job, hands-on type of learning starts.

"For firefighting, it's hot and you have no choice but to fight the fire, and that's everyone's job," she continued. "We learned to work together and to adapt to the situation to keep us alive. ... I feel it was very beneficial to both me and my classmates. Then, for the wet trainer, it's also chaotic and dark, but with lots of water we had to try and keep from completely flooding the space. We were also briefed thoroughly on how to handle each type of problem we'd encounter once inside, though, and were able to work successfully to both minimize the water intake and learn how to dewater and escape, if necessary."
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On most days, seemingly never-ending flooding pours into USS Buttercup, giving Sailors a glimpse of what a sinking ship could look like. Water flows rapidly from around, above and below them to stress the importance of acting quickly to effectively manage the simulated disaster.

The counterpoint is fire. As the sweat pours down their faces from the fiery heat of the live-fire trainer, Sailors realize damage controlmen aren't the only ones charged with picking up a hose and dousing flames if a casualty happens while underway. It is at that point, Wilson said, that each student feels the stress associated with a potential catastrophe. And the more they are stressed out, the more comfortable they will be in a real-life crisis.

"It's good for them to get here in a realistic and a safe environment," Wilson added, "so that they can get those reps and sets so they're better prepared when they do get to the ship and something bad happens. When we're out to sea, we don't have 911. We don't have anybody we can fall back on; we're all we got. That's not everybody's rate. That's not what they came in the Navy for, but when it comes down to emergencies, we need everybody. We need all hands on deck to get through the casualty."

Editor's note: Click here to learn more about the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59).