The below article appeared in Navy Times in the 11/5/07 issue. I feel safe, in terms of copyright, reprinting it here whole, since I wrote it (if it's anyone's intellectual property, for better or worse, it's mine).
A matter of time?
Posted : November 05, 2007
As a former Navy submarine nuke, I’m at once shocked and not shocked by the recent news from the attack submarine Hampton.
It’s shocking to find out that anyone may have been “radioing” primary chemistry, and for the length of time they allegedly were doing so. Shocking that anyone may have radioed any logs, as anyone in the nuclear community (and even the Navy as a whole) recognizes the inherent wrongness and potential danger in this most dishonest of practices.
Yet I’m also not shocked.
First, let me be clear: I am not in any way condoning or excusing what these sailors reportedly did. Not one bit. There is simply no excuse for misrepresenting or falsifying records.
But of the 24 hours in a day, more and more are eaten away by the increasing demands on our time. Over the years, I’ve seen training requirements creep upward, inspections grow in number and frequency, and other requirements rise and rise.
A standard workday in port for a submarine nuke consists of two to four hours of training — that’s just nuclear training. Add an hour or two more for general military training, meetings and musters for this and that, and you’ve taken up a big chunk of the day already — and accomplished no real work.
Then you add in cleaning — every chief of the boat or engineering department master chief feels this should be at least an hour a day, or more.
At a minimum, that’s four hours of the day, possibly up to six or more, with no real work done.
See where I’m going?
At sea, submariners commonly are in a “six-on, 12-off” rotation. The 12 hours “off” are for work (the six hours following your watch) and sleep (the six hours preceding your watch). But that “off” time gets eaten up by cleaning, training, drills and paperwork. Any submarine nuke will tell you that the six hours “off-going” translates to, at best, two hours for “the job.” The leadership packs those off-watch times with more “required attendance” stuff than you can shake a broom at.
When you are finally done, your job has now been shoehorned into your sleep time, making you all the more likely to rush the next off-watch to catch up on shut-eye.
As one former submarine commander stated, the Hampton’s electronic technicians could simply have been lazy. But when you take the example above, you can see where the “job” has been relegated to back-burner status. In port, the rush this puts on the actual job we are supposed to do is the rush to get done and get home. At sea, it’s the rush to get some sleep. With a three-section watch rotation and drills, training, and qualifications taking up a significant portion of the available rest time, the motivation for sailors shirking duties often is to get some rest, some downtime.
Do we scrap training? Cancel drills? Eliminate quals? No, but leaders often get blinded to the effect their scheduling decisions have on those doing the work. At a planning meeting, do the boat’s department heads and department chiefs say, “Where are we putting the rest time?” or, “When are the divisions actually supposed to get their maintenance done?” All too often, they’re packing in more training, more drills and more cleaning, all at the expense of what we are really there to do: our jobs.
Rushing and cutting corners was a common theme in the reviews of incidents such as the San Francisco’s undersea collision, the Greeneville’s collision with the fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru and Greeneville’s later grounding in Saipan. We spend more hours training for our jobs than we do on the deck plates performing — and supervising — our jobs.
Is this lack of actual job time the root problem in these incidents? No; in the Hampton’s case, it appears to be integrity.
But what even tempts a sailor to “gundeck”? A sense of urgency, all too often brought on by the lack of time allotted to do the job correctly. Some sailors will gundeck regardless, out of laziness or a lack of personal responsibility — that’s a separate and even more serious issue. But many get there gradually, by chipping away at what’s acceptable by cutting corners to save what little time they have.
Is the fix to reprioritize training, drills and other requirements to put the job back in front? Not completely, but it’s worth considering.
Submarine life has never been abundant with free time. Old-timers likely will say, “We had it tough and we did it right,” and that is true. But is that a good enough reason to ignore the problem? Is adherence to something that is needlessly cumbersome just because “that’s how it’s always been” really sensible, when that problem has become a beast that eats up hours like an SUV guzzles gas?The writer, a former submarine electronics technician first class with 16 years of service, works in the nuclear power industry in New Mexico. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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