SERIOUS BUSINESS (edited for brevity)
by Gary G. Ballard ©2002

SAN DIEGO — Nowhere is the awesome destructive power of fire more hazardous to human life than onboard navy warships, floating self–contained communities where every person aboard is a potential firefighter.

"I don't think there's a person in the world who's not afraid of fire, including me," says George Sherwin, a 45–year–old navy firefighting instructor. "But I've learned to respect it and I fight it on those terms."

Each year, Sherwin and 30 other firefighting instructors here at the Fleet Training Center (FTC) train more than 35,000 military personnel in various fire–related areas.

"This training is probably one of the most important aspects of navy life," says Art Pollard, a 10–year navy veteran who has served aboard six aircraft carriers. "It's super important. I cannot stress it enough.

"If a land structure burns out of control, the fire teams can back off," continues Pollard. "At sea we don't have that option. We have to attack the fire, go right to its source and get it under control fast. If we are not successful, we could lose the ship, and it's a long way back to shore."

Although a steel maze of watertight compartments reduces the fiery threat in modern ships, the potential for catastrophe remains — missiles, bombs, fuels, and paint stores compound the danger.

"It's a three-dimensional threat," according to Chuck Mogge, a 34–year–old instructor. "Steel itself doesn't burn, but it transmits heat, spreading the fire in six directions at once."

FTC offers training in many areas, including common wood and paper fires, fuel fires, electrical fires and chemical fires. Specialized techniques, such as rescuing airmen and ordnance from burning aircraft, are also put into practice, as are preventive–maintenance procedures for the damage control equipment.

Several training structures at FTC, which include a sophisticated smoke abatement system, were constructed to simulate burning shipboard environments. Here, students get firsthand experience in navy firefighting.

"When I take a student into a burning engine room and he shields his face from the heat and cries out, 'I can't see,' well, right there he's learned something," says Mogge. "He's learned he needs to be able to function with his eyes closed."

Understanding individual responsibility is also important, according to Brian Jagoe, a 31–year old instructor. "I try to give every student, no matter what his regular job is, an awareness that he may one day have to enter a smoke–filled space and combat a fire."

"All navy training is important," says student Tony Agunat, 21, "but firefighting is critical because it could not only save my life, but a shipmate's life as well.

"The instructors can tell you how to use equipment and how to fight fire, but you never really understand until you get in there and do it," adds Agunat. "I've gained confidence...I know that as a team we can go into a burning space and put a fire out."


Photo by G. Ballard, San Diego