Tuesday, July 12, 2011

India Tango

By Jordan May

Although some of us went to school to become sailors, most people don’t become sailors to go to school. The term “sailor” in general doesn’t conjure up a picture of the academic type, studious and disposed toward a formal education. More likely we picture the hard-working, hard-drinking salts of days gone by. To move forward onboard today’s maritime industry however, it’s inevitable that you will need to spend a significant amount of time undertaking formal training in some type of classroom or facility. It’s a part of doing business and some of the material can be utilized towards safer and more successful operations.

Many of these schools were created or expanded to meet the growing requirements of the STCW Convention and the associated months of mandatory formal education. Since STCW was developed for oceangoing ships, there are certain elements of the required training, which are sometimes difficult to integrate onboard a small tug or vessel. Mariners spend plenty of time debating the value and effectiveness of classroom training, however there are a few areas I rarely hear anyone bellyaching about – fire fighting and first aid, for example.

If you are in this industry long enough you have seen a fire onboard and you have seen a few injuries. If you are just entering the industry you’ve already heard the stories and realize that if you stick around long enough you will see both.

People tend to retain material more effectively when it means their butt is at risk and serious injury to them, their vessel or their survival is at stake.

Being a good procrastinator I had somehow put off marine firefighting for the last 25 years of my maritime career. I just never had the time until last March. Finding myself unemployed with the opportunity at hand, I started looking at basic and advanced firefighting classes on the West Coast. Seattle is not far from home, and I had good feedback on Fremont Marine and their India Tango Marine Fire Training Program.

My previous employer had utilized Fremont and their portable unit for teaching a BST Refresher Class in San Francisco Bay last year. The Fremont instructors delivered a truck and all necessary equipment right to the dock in Alameda. By improvising what the company had onsite they were able to carry out the basic fire practices in the parking lot using the hose and extinguishers on live propane fires. For the classroom side of the program a good-sized conference area in the office was set up with tables and chairs.

Day 1
As hard as the material is to present while keeping tug sailors engaged, I was impressed by how our instructor was able to stay fresh and keep the class moving. Let’s face it: mariners are a tough lot to teach. If you sail for a career you’re already fairly competent at something and posses a few skills. Most mariners are not going to sit still with a straight face and listen to a landlubber drone on about everything a textbook says you need to know for working onboard. If the instructor can portray real experience and has a few scars or broken bones to share, it makes a big difference in gaining buy-in from the class. By engaging the students and utilizing some of the actual stories and experience sitting right there in the classroom, an instructor has a much higher chance of getting people to consider the material and maybe retain a good percentage of what they should be getting from class.

Monday morning in Seattle started in the classroom with the basics: fire theory and how the presence of fuel, oxygen and heat combine and support each other. We covered the equipment and gear we would be using over the week and the commands, co-operation and teamwork, which would be critical in getting through the class. I was a little surprised after lunch when we met down at the ship mock-up, jumped into the gear and donned the SCBA. I was more surprised when I found myself in a live fire with a water hose trying to put it out.

Day 2
The first half of the day we went over fuels and fire prevention. The point impressed on us was how to assess and eliminate fire hazards to minimize the potential in work we do every day. Being hyper-aware and informed on what to look for paves the way toward the ultimate goal of actually “avoiding a fire” in the first place. Contemporary fire detection equipment, fixed fire systems and methods of use were covered well and detailed in our workbooks. The importance of having an organized plan, a Station Bill and a Chain of Command was impressed onto us with real examples of fires going badly when nobody sticks to the plan, which is the most common reaction.

I wasn’t as shocked when after lunch we met down at the mock-up ship again and got into the gear. We started with a search and sweep for victims in the zero visibility, smoke-filled ship. Next we went after a live fire of propane and kerosene in the mock-up engine room and overhead. When we weren’t part of the direct attack team we practiced supporting the team inside doing the hot work. We were in and out of the gear more than a few times.

Day 3
With the first two days covering basic, the third day we started the advanced portion of the class with the addition of a few new students. We covered the importance of an organized plan and stringent drills and evaluations onboard. Damage control, fire boundaries and methodology were discussed with more detail. After lunch we found ourselves in the gear again, inside the ship, and the fires we faced were getting a little more intense. A rolling, overhead flame inside the ship put us as close to 1,200 degrees as I ever want to be and standing up at that point could have been the last thing I ever did. It was around this point where I realized that the exposure to these fires was going to leave some kind of impression on everyone involved and that exposure is what makes this training worthwhile.

Day 4
In the suits again and now descending down a ladder into an engineroom fire. By this time I could get in the gear in under a minute with help from a team member. The fires we faced also started to look different. While not necessarily predictable, I now had a better idea what was sustaining the fire and what would stop it from working. They didn’t have the original shock value that sends people scrambling in all directions like my first instinct on day one. The emphasis on an organized plan is stuck in your head and you find your hands doing what they are supposed to do with less thought and more automation.

By the fifth day the students had developed a routine for dealing with various fires and situations. Getting in and out of the gear, preparing the hose and supporting the other teams was a standard exercise. Approaching a surprise fire, planned by the other teams without any idea of the scenario, meant relying on what we had learned. The three teams tried hard to develop some curveballs to challenge each other. A mock heart attack, zero visibility, a helicopter fire and an unexpected search and rescue were some of the hurdles encountered by the teams. I think the different exercises allowed each of us to realize that we now possessed at least a couple of tools which would aid in dealing with the unpredictable and dynamic circumstances found during a real fire onboard a vessel.

The class time on our final day covered vessel stability and where it goes when you start flooding a vessel with water during a fire. De-watering is not something typically considered when you first see a fire. Neither is documentation of events or reporting and investigation; however these all come into play at some point in a serious fire onboard and taking these factors into consideration as they unfold was stressed into the routine we had developed. We also carried out and presented investigation and analysis of several historic onboard fires and the methods used in confronting those fires. By studying the reactions and accounts of other people and how they dealt with onboard fires we learned a lot about ourselves and how people will typically react.

Command and Control are the keys to effectively dealing with a fire onboard. With a station bill designating duties for each crewmember, with a systematic and organized method of training and drills and with an actual plan that people will practice and retain some hope of fulfilling, we gain a much better chance of controlling and recovering from an onboard fire. It makes our approach to something we rarely have to deal with much more effective.

Many of the instructors for India Tango are off-duty fire personnel from the Seattle area. By serving in this major port they’ve had the benefit of exposure to various marine fires and are well versed in utilizing shoreside and onboard resources, which we could relate with. The mock-up ship onsite is laid out well to mimic a common vessel arrangement. A large percentage of the time was spent in the ship and in the gear with live smoke and fire. Is it real? Well, it’s as close as you're going to get without setting your own boat on fire. Textbooks have value, the classroom has value but most mariners tend to be the type of people that learn something most effectively by doing it with their own hands. Get in and out of the gear enough times and you actually develop a routine. Get face-to-face with live flame and you actually develop a technique for holding the hose, applying water and thinking on your feet with a practiced technique. This hands-on learning is what makes this class valuable and it instills lessons which simply can’t be learned by watching a video or reading a textbook.

Jordan May is a seasoned tug skipper who has taken a break from the towing sector and finds himself running a fishing boat in Alaska for the summer.