Former shipyard fire chief criticizes Navy report

KITTERY, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- The former chief of the fire department at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard said the department is getting unfair criticism from the U.S. Navy. The Navy released its long awaited report on the disastrous fire on the submarine USS Miami. In the report the Navy criticizes its own procedures, but also singles out the shipyard fire department.

Brian Tapley said he was serving as the fire chief the night of May of 2012 when an unhappy worker started a fire on board the USS Miami. Tapley said no one at the yard or in the Navy was prepared for a fire that large on a nuclear submarine. The fire took 12 hours to extinguish and destroyed the multi-million dollar submarine. Firefighters from the shipyard and submarine crew members repeatedly went into the thick, blinding smoke and intense heat to fight the fire. After several hours, 100 other firefighters joined them after the department requested from surrounding towns.

The Navy's report cites a wide range of problems, from the fact that on-board fire sensor systems are disabled when a ship goes into dry dock, to the limited ability to communicate while on the sub because two-way radio signals couldn't penetrate the hull. The report also cites the shipyard fire department for allegedly not knowing the layout of the submarine, and not training on actual subs. Former Chief Tapley said that isn't true. He said the department regularly conducted drills on board submarines, and said there were 54 such drills since 2009. He also said many shipyard firefighters formerly worked in the metal trades at the yard, and are very well acquainted with the interior of submarines.

Tapley said it took a long time to identify the location of the fire, which allowed the fire to grow and spread. He blamed that on the alarm system, which did not indicate where a fire was located. He also blamed the worker who initially noticed the fire, but focused on trying to put the fire out instead of sounding the alarm. Tapley said the delay cost them precious time.

The former chief said that the Navy has made a number of changes since the Miami fire, which he praised. Among those changes: a submarine fire simulator, including hatch and ladder so firefighters can train in a realistic way to battle a fire the way they had to do on the USS Miami. He also said Navy submarine crews are also using the simulator, and developing plans to team up with shipyard firefighters in any future fires.


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