Damage Control – Its Real Meaning

MARLANT - Admiral's View / March 13, 2014

Daily, ships of the Atlantic Fleet gracefully steam in and out of harbour occupied with the constant toil of sustaining operational readiness.  It’s a spectacle that never ceases to arouse in me an intense pride in the sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy.  I know firsthand of the intense teamwork that brings a warship to life.  I know too that the pleasing imagery of ships and the sea belies ever-present risks that sailors manage as a matter of course.  The unforgiving environment of the sea and the wear and tear of running machinery demands constant vigilance, non-stop maintenance and a systematic methodology behind every activity to minimize inherent risks.  Even then, every sailor maintains a preparedness to face the possibility of accident and the most dreaded risk of all, fire at sea.  The recent events aboard HMCS Protecteur oblige a short commentary about our fixation on damage control.

Damage control is the coordinated activity of a ship’s crew to combat floods and fire, aircraft crash and the consequences of collision, grounding, and major machinery failure to name but a few.  It is practiced relentlessly because crews at sea must deal with the issue at hand or founder.  There is no fire department on call and failure to tame the emergency leaves only one last recourse which every sailor dares not contemplate.

Moreover, the business of a warship is operations and a sailor’s training is dedicated to achieving mission success notwithstanding battle damage that may arise. Motivated by self-preservation and focussed on mission success, crews train to operate sensors, launch aircraft and defend their ship in scenarios that simulate the cascading and debilitating effects of fire and flood, electrical failure, smoke and mass casualties.

This is serious business and nothing focusses a crew like damage control.  We have the lessons of World War II and our veterans to inspire us.  Besides a host of accidents that have befallen other navies, we have also learned from our own experiences in HMCS Kootenay (1969), HMCS Ottawa (2003), and HMCS Chicoutimi (2004). We have invested in state of the art fire schools that can drill the most difficult scenarios without endangering personnel and we expend considerable resources upgrading our ships and personal protective equipment with modern technologies. 

Most importantly, we train relentlessly.  Every member of the crew, no matter their rank or specialization is a firefighter.  Trained in damage control on joining the navy, sailors have their skills refreshed biannually.  Every day in harbour, the duty watch exercises a damage control scenario which typically is a fire.  At sea, under the direction of the Command Team, the evolutions are more complex, team-oriented and form part of the hectic daily rhythm of the ship.

Once every one to two years, our ships are subjected to an externally generated training and assessment cycle lasting up to four weeks.  These are delivered by dedicated damage control, propulsion, combat and seamanship experts of the Sea Training staffs.  The most complex shipboard scenarios probable such as major engine room fires for one are exhaustively instructed then assessed.  Ships must demonstrate a level of crew coherence and competence in damage control, achieving a satisfactory grade before being allowed to proceed with any other training or deployment activities.

The upshot of this damage control focus is an underlying confidence aboard ship despite the ever-present dangers.  On-watch first responders react with alacrity to alarm bells warning of smoke, fire or flood, rapidly assessing the situation, fighting the immediate threat, extracting personnel from danger, and raising a more precise alarm.  Behind the first responders, the entire ship’s team brings a central damage control headquarters to life to direct the emergency response. Throughout the ship, personnel move to pre-designated centres, dress in full firefighting ensembles, form teams, and stand ready to be dispatched in a coordinated front of activity.  While some attack the fire, others cool adjoining spaces, assess the broader scale of damage, operate main and auxiliary systems, and jury rig emergency services when redundant systems fail.

The events aboard HMCS Protecteur were a test of this preparedness.  No doubt there will be many lessons learned, but the valiant crew’s response reaffirmed in me that confidence required to dispatch our ships on operations, and reaffirmed that intense pride I feel every time I see one of our ships departing for sea.