Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Fire Main

Fires are one of the most dangerous and common casualties that happen on ships. It's been that way since sailors started sailing. But because fires are so dangerous, we have many ways to combat them onboard. And we train relentlessly to get good at putting them out quickly and safely.

An interior fire plug -- freshly painted by the Tiger Army, 1st Regiment
One key component of our fire fighting capabilities, and really any kind of damage control, is the ship's fire main. The fire main is the system that carries sea water throughout the ship. It can also be used to dewater a space (I know -- it sounds counter-intuitive, but it works on the Venturi effect...google it, mostly because I suck at explaining physics), to desmoke a space, for cooling water to protect fire boundaries, and a host of other common and uncommon chores onboard, some of which are related to damage control, and some that are not (including flushing the sewage tanks, and providing a sea water supply to the refrigeration system).

So the fire main is *REALLY* important. Which is why every new crewmember has to draw it out on a piece of paper, with all the valves, fire stations and various accouterments labeled...in their first month onboard. I can always tell when someone is working on their drawings, because their head is craned up, looking at the overhead, they have a pencil and pad of paper in their hands, and a somewhat frustrated and puzzled look on their face as they try to follow the pipes throughout the ship. I know this also because I was one of those folks these last few weeks.

Which brings me to a confession -- I took more than a month to get my fire main drawing done. I have excuse after excuse, but I'm definitely embarrassed and a little frustrated with myself that turned it in just today -- **five** weeks after reporting onboard. Absolutely not the example I wanted to set. Ugh. But it's done now. I handed it to DCA (the Damage Control Assistant, ENS Jon Sapundjieff) for his review. I expect to get it back tomorrow, hopefully without too many corrections required.

I'm expecting there won't be too many corrections because I definitely learned from the best. DILIGENCE's MPA (Main Propulsion Assistant, CWO Andy Molnar) walked me through the fire main about four times (mostly because it took that long for some of the intricacies of the system to start sinking into my little pea brain -- it had nothing to do with his teaching skills). MPA knows the fire main from memory. He can (and does, regularly, for all the new folks) draw it without hesitation, on the glass of the framed chart of the Caribbean that we have hanging in the wardroom. He sketches it out to give an idea of how it's laid out and then leaves it up to the crewmember to walk around, trace the pipes, label the valves and find the fire stations. Which was hugely helpful -- but only once I realized that he was performing fire main magic. He was making 90 degree turns in the actual pipe into straight lines on his drawing. Once I got that little trick through my head, the drawing became a lot simpler!

I said lots of times during the probably eight hours I spent crawling all through the ship working on my drawing that it was like a massive treasure hunt. I'd get so excited when I got to the end of a branch and find a fire plug, or a cut off valve for the countermeasure washdown system, or the magazine sprinkler, or...anything! that meant I didn't have to keep following that particular branch of pipe and could go find the next branch.

A naked fire plug on the exterior of the main deck (starboard side)
One funny story about my adventures tracing the fire main: on 3 Jul, the Yard needed to move DILIGENCE on their ship rail system to bring another ship out of the water. I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to work on my fire main drawing. There wouldn't be any power to the ship because they had to disconnect all the shore ties while they moved us, so I couldn't work on the computer. I'd be a captive audience for the move because the brow wouldn't be attached. What a great use of my time -- throw on some coveralls, grab my flashlight, and go work on my fire main. It was a fantastic plan. I got a ton done on the drawing, even though it was mostly pitch black in the interior spaces. The battle lanterns were working, but there's just not that many of them to supply emergency lighting. There was one known flaw in my plan -- the very fact that we're in drydock. A goodly number of valves, all the strainers, and all the exterior fire stations have been removed as part of work items. Needless to say, that just added an extra bit of challenge to the whole process.
The other flaw I wasn't really expecting. I was down in the deepest belly of the engine room, all the way forward, just outside of the forward auxiliary space, and the ship started to move on the rails.

So...ships are meant to move smoothly *through the water,* NOT on land, and NOT on some rail system. It was creepy as creepy could be. I'm pretty sure I ran screaming from the engine room like the worst actress in a B-grade horror flick -- you know, the one who leaves the house, or answers the phone when everyone in the audience is hollering at her not to. But the room was moving, it was dark (and ghastly hot), and I didn't have any frame of reference *at all!* Newly reported OS3 Joseph Sanchez and BM3 Andrew McLellan were in the engine room doing their drawings at the same time (they'd been onboard for four days), and I'm pretty sure they chortled aloud as I stumbled in a mad panic out of the space. They calmly continued working. I crept back in a few embarrassed minutes later, to take another whack at it. Thankfully, moving on the rails took less than 10 minutes, so I didn't lose too much time being a complete wuss.

After spending about five hours on the day we shifted on the rails working on my drawing, I had to take a break. When I went back to work on it again a couple of days later, MPA was busy doing other DC training for unqualified members on the messdeck. He recommended I ask SA Christopher Kingsley to help guide me through what I had left. Kingsley was a huge help, knew how the fire main came together in the uptake space, and was wonderfully patient walking back and forth with me while I tried to wrap my head around the tangle of pipes. Imagine my surprise the next day when, talking with MPA about how helpful Kingsley was, I found out he had been onboard for less than four months. Holy moly! I was sure he had been here at least twice that, given how well he knew the system!

My fire main drawing -- signed off by DCA
I realized I still had a little more work to do after I transferred my working copy to a clean copy, so I went down to the log office, where there are a set of DC plates that show how all the piping runs through the ship for the fire main. MK1 Bobby Messick was working peacefully on the laptop in the space, and noticed me rifling through the DC plates. Jokingly, he asked me where the drawing was that got passed from XO to XO. It's a totally legitimate question -- why *did* I spend so much time hot and sweaty, frustrated and confused, bashing my head (a few times literally bashing my head --ouch!! I still have the bump on my forehead from cracking my noggin on a pipe trying to get a visual on that one valve just forward of the number one fire pump that's tucked oh so sweet and cozily behind the hot water tank) against the fire main?

In a slightly more elegant manner than this, I told him that I felt like I had gypped myself on my last big ship. I was OPS, and I could get away with not taking the time to draw out the 378's fire main. And I always regretted it. I felt like I didn't know the ship as well as I could have. I simply don't want to feel that way again. I *want* to know how things work on the ship. I *want* to know exactly what it means when something breaks, if for no other reason than to gain a very visceral understanding of where the line that shan't be crossed actually is. 

We have lots and lots and lots of safety margin built into a lot of what we do on a day to day basis. But when the shit hits the fan, I want to know exactly how hard I can push -- our equipment and our people -- to effectively complete the mission without permanently damaging something or someone beyond repair. And the only way to know that is to be completely familiar with the ship. Drawing the fire main is a great place to start, and is in no way an end to my desire to learn about the ship.

One final thought on the fire main (sung to the tune of "12 Days of Christmas," of course -- with a few extra syllables crammed in): six interior jumper stations, five motor operated valves, four main deck fire plugs, three remote starts, two fire pumps, and one zebra valve in the uptake space.

PS - I did get my drawing back, with four corrections I had to chase down. The re-submission after corrections was successful! I got it back in my inbox today, signed off on by DCA!

2 comments:

Security Guards said...

in their first month onboard. I can always tell when someone is working on their drawings, because their head is craned up, looking at the overhead, they have a pencil and pad of paper in their hands, and a somewhat frustrated and puzzled look on their face as they try to follow the pipes throughout the ship. I know this also because I was one of those folks these last few weeks. Fire Guards

Soft Hof said...

playing with fire is dangerous.
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