Thursday, January 11, 2007

Safety Stand-Down

[DISCLAIMER: I have no inside knowledge as to the investigations currently pending in the submarine fleet, and no inside information on the happenings of the last month. What follows is purely semi-informed speculation]

Far be it from me to criticize our leadership's motivations for force-wide direction, but the mandated safety stand-down the submarine fleet is about to undergo seems more like CYA than a way to truly foment change.

More importantly, is there really a need "to go “back to basics,” [and] pause and rehearse routine skills"? Do not misunderstand me, the events of the past few weeks are tragic and regrettable. However, they do not, in my view, necessarily represent a sub force that is lacking in proficiency.

To review:
On 29 Dec, 4 sailors were swept off the deck of the MSP. Two were injured, and two good men died. They sub was outside the breakwater, with men on deck, in heavy seas. The men were tethered properly. Why were the men on deck in those conditions? The pilot, whose job was not completed until after the boat had left the breakwater astern, needed to be transferred off to a waiting small boat. So there was no choice concerning having men topside past the breakwater. Now, should they have gone to sea in that sea-state? Apparently not. However, this would seem to be an ORM failure in the upper chain of command (CO, squadron, etc), rather than an issue for your deckplate sailors.

This past Monday, 08 Jan, The Newport News, while operating in the Straits of Hormuz, collided with a Japanese supertanker. The Straits, are, by definition, narrow, as well as very shallow.

Subs, by their nature, rely on stealth, survivability, covertness, uncertainty, non-provocation, and total offense to complete their missions. Therefore, in order to not obviate the usefulness of having a sub in the area, her commanders are going to keep her submerged as much as possible, especially when transiting a shallow, well watched choke point. Even if it is shallow. In this case, I fully believe that the risks were understood and accepted. However, in a narrow, busy environment, sometimes it is impossible to avoid getting zoofed. And when you are shallow, also unavoidable in this case due to the depth of the ocean floor, and a massive supertanker zoofs you, apparently the venturi effect is going to toss you about rather severely. Again, transiting under these conditions is a higher level decision, well beyond the scope of most sailors on the boats other than the perhaps the senior members of the wardroom. In this case, though, it sounds as if the risk was not ignored, but acknowledged and accepted. ORM was at least observed, even if it did bite us despite it all.


So what then is the purpose of this stand-down? It will effectively shut down every in port boat as every sailor on board sits through safety training. However, the problem, if there even is one, resides higher in the chain of command than this will reach. The problem, if there is one, is a cultural one regarding ORM, and will not be solved by a week of training. If this stand-down is being used to kick off a shift in outlook on how we employ our boats, then it might have some value. However, I doubt that even the preliminary lessons learned message has been released regarding the Newport News, not to mention a course of action to correct any noted deficiencies. The purpose of the stand-down appears to be, with the previous points in mind, nothing more than a pointless show of some action, any action, to those above the sub force that, "Look, see? We are fixing this - now leave us alone." Which, as a statement, is fine, and the necessity for such a statement is sad but understandable. But to do it in this way, and take away a week of work, while keeping subs' schedules the same, merely means that in the following weeks our sailors are going to have to work harder, longer to catch up, further straining an already overstressed force.

Maybe our ORM does need to be looked at after all.

3 Comments:

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Vigilis said...

PBS, very informative chart and informative insights!

Since I used stand downs as a safety professional, my answer to your question "So what then is the purpose of this stand-down?" appears at Molten Eagle. http://aquilinefocus.blogspot.com/2007/01/submarines-and-submariners-purpose-of.html - Vig

 
At 8:47 AM, Blogger lazlong said...

PBS,

The last few lines are right on the nose. Any time we had a safety stand-down (or any other type of work stop), it made it just that much more difficult in the end.
I remember a time when we had a stand-down for a week due to the amount of DWIs that were happening, and we were getting underway in the next few weeks. Just before the stand-down, M-div went into shift work to perform condenser maintanience (hydrolancing). We lost a week of work out of our short time in port, but were still expected to have everything ready to get underway at the same time as before.

Suffice it to say, we worked our asses off, probably cut some corners, and didn't do that great of a job cleaning the tubes, and could have messed up big time.

As helpful as safety stand-downs can be, they are much more counter-productive to M-division as a whole (unless M-div was the cause of the stand-down). It made our job just that much harder.

 
At 5:31 PM, Blogger badger62 said...

Amen brothers, submarine operations are inherently dangerous. We do things on man-made machines that shouldn't be done. A CO shouldn't be fried because someone gets killed in an accident. We all signed up knowing we are in harm's way.

 

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