Fire at sea and complex systems…

Fall, 2021: So as I write this that ship is still burning north of here about 40 miles (I am in Port Angeles as I write this), with the situation uncertain as to what happens next; there are all these drifting containers about 40 miles west of the coast which represent a danger to other marine traffic;  and this enormous storm is bearing down on California. Just this afternoon the marine authorities near Los Angeles recommended in the strongest possible terms that the over 100 ships anchored or drifting just off the harbor entrance,  waiting for berth space, and positioned to hold their place in the queue to unload, put to sea immediately to gain sea room from each other and have room to battle the high waves and winds approaching them. If a huge storm with 20 to 30 foot swells strikes the land, all those ships anchored in shallow water, probably half a mile apart, but maybe much closer than that, will be at tremendous risk of dragging their anchors and running into each other. If you’re anchored and you wait for the storm to strike, believe me, hauling anchor in a 60 mile gale and 30 foot seas, and somehow getting up enough way to maneuver before you are cast against another ship, or the beach itself, is not a place anyone wants to be. I am guessing, right now, ships are scattering to the west, toward the storm, but toward sea room, too.

We build these complex systems which work wonderfully until they don’t, but when they don’t it is a disaster, and the necessary costs and preparation to respond to such a disaster can be enormous. For marine ships, it used to be, years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard had fire fighting ships, and the U.S.Navy had firefighting ships and tugs, but these days all that work is contracted out to private salvage companies, based a long distance from most events. Eventually they will gather the people and the material and the tugs or ships to respond, but in the long hours or days before then it is up to the ship’s crew and whatever small local city fire vessels there might be nearby. I would bet that the City of Seattle might have even sent one of their fire boats 60 miles north toward Victoria, for example.

We did fire drills all the time aboard commercial ships, and aboard military reserve ships too. Every time we did such a trial it was sobering. Here’s the thing. A ship fire suppression system is itself a complex series of pipes, pumps, valves and hoses, running all through the ship. In the engine room are the big pumps, which use fresh water stored in tanks or maybe salt water through hull sea cocks. These pumps need to be run every now and then, greased, maintained. All the valves to direct the water flow – and believe me there are hundreds on any ship, many in hard places to reach –  need to be “exercised” so they don’t freeze up, get stiff, or break. The hoses, canvas, heavy, up to four inches in diameter and extending hundreds of feet, with brass ends and fittings, lie coiled all over the ship, and they too need to be regularly rolled out, stretched, inspected, and charged with water to find weak spots. If you set up a fire hose system and run it fairly often it is a fantastic fire fighting system, but if you only try it now and then, it can be a disaster, a deluge of broken valves, frayed hoses, broken pumps. These systems run all over the ship, and the duty of the sailors and the engine room staff is to hold drills to get used to responding fast as well as to practice fire fighting, because when and if a real fire strikes you don’t want to be struggling to do your job, clumsy. This of course is not to mention the fire suits we have to don or the masks and tank air systems we use when going into an enclosed space or, worst of all, a fire in the engine room. Those tanks are supposed to hold air for 30 minutes of breathing, but when you’re in a 40 pound fire suit and helmet, crouched, in heat and smoke, heart hammering, the low air beep seems to start within five minutes.

So aboard a ship there is a fire fighting system (I haven’t even started with all the extinguishers) that is critically important but exercised seldom. Furthermore, as in many high-consequence situations (happening very rarely but when they do happen hugely consequential), when the best definition of success is nothing happens, over time all the drills and schedules become routine, often missed for good reasons, and bad reasons, such that what often seems to happen is when such a disaster strikes the system doesn’t work, or works badly, or the fire teams are not practiced.

All sailors need to conduct real fire training, with all the gear, and real fires, in terrifying closed spaces, again and again, to keep their certification. But all we sailors, whether deck workers or officers or engineers or the steward’s department, are not fire fighters by profession. Our task in the event of a big fire is to hold the fort as best we can until the big boys arrive.

We all know, all of us, that if such a fire happens far from any help, or a fire gets out of control, there is nothing we can do. Off course, if such a conflagration occurs well offshore, then one ship and her crew are lost, but if it happens in a harbor someplace, a naval base or a big container complex, then the disaster can be far greater. But it seems, these days, that at U.S. Navy bases there are no fire tugs or ships staffed by the Navy. There used to be, but over the last few decades this work has been outsourced to private contractors.
I worked on military reserve ships. It used to be that such ships were staffed and manned by Navy personnel, enlisted men and women and officers, but somewhere along the way the decision was made to remove these ships and their staffing from the Navy and contract it out. This meant work for U.S. trained commercial and merchant sailors, of which I was one when I did it, but the main lesson I received from the ships I worked on was that they cost an absolute fortune to maintain and keep operational, and now that fortune included a hefty profit for the private contractor, too.

All of which to say, just in the case of ships, they are complex, and expensive to maintain, and budget pressures always reduce those maintenance dollars, and then you have a complex asset that cannot justify the required maintenance and prevention budget, yet if a fire happens, is entirely ill equipped to properly fight that fire. Everyone who goes to sea knows this, of course, it is the secret gnawing anxiety always with you, and you simply hope for the best, pray your officers know what the hell to do if a fire breaks out, pray you know what to do.

So, vagabond drifting containers somewhere out there, right now. A ship burning just to the north, close to a harbor and a city, and questions arising about whether the necessary assets can be found to properly fight the fire. An enormous storm bearing down on southern California forcing over 100 ships to either flee into the teeth of the gale or try to ride it out where they are, all those ships forced to wait outside the harbor because of the myriad supply chain breakdowns throughout the system — lack of berth space, lack of empty containers, lack of chassis for the containers, lack of rail capacity, lack of spaces to store the containers, the entire worldwide flow of scheduled container services interrupted and changed, blockages expanding and then contracting, all resulting in huge uncertainties about deliveries — deliveries of all the goodies we’ve come to think is what Christmas is about and, even more important, deliveries of all the necessary parts and components needed to finish these complicated gadgets we’ve come to demand and depend on from a worldwide sourcing system that, when it falters, is a disaster.

Maybe this is a once in a decade confluence of factors bringing notice to the fragility of these complex sophisticated systems we have constructed and then cannot or choose not to maintain.

We better hope so.

Author: Charlie Sheldon

Charlie Sheldon studied at Yale University (American Studies) and the University of Massachusetts (Master’s Degree in Wildlife Biology and Resource Management). He then went to sea as a commercial fisherman off New England, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster, red crab, squid, and swordfish. Active in the fight for the 200-mile Fisheries Conservation Zone, he later worked as a consultant for Fishery Management Councils, developing fishery management plans and conducting gear development projects to develop more selective fisheries. He spent 28 years working for seaports (New York, Seattle, and Bellingham) as a project and construction manager and later as an executive. In addition to overseeing habitat cleanup projects, he worked with Puget Sound Tribes establish a system whereby tribal fishing could coexist with commercial shipping in Seattle Harbor and Elliot Bay. Then, nearly ancient, he returned to sea, shipping out with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific as an Ordinary Seaman, Able Bodied Seaman, and Bosun. Starting with commercial container vessels, on the New York to Singapore run, he finished his career aboard naval ships for Military Sealift Command. His last gig was as bosun aboard USNS Shughart, New Orleans to New York, in 2016. Always a writer, he published Fat Chance with Felony and Mayhem Press in 2005. He began working on ideas for Strong Heart long, long ago and began serious research in 2010. These days he hikes in the Olympics whenever he can, cooks for his wife, and continues to write tales in Ballard, Washington.

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