U.S. Carrier Fire Injures 9: Navy’s Fire Prevention Efforts Face Scrutiny


The Navy’s ongoing effort to prevent shipboard fires has suffered a setback. On Wednesday, the U.S. Third Fleet released a brief statement, detailing a fire aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), one of America’s few deployable aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

The Navy reported that nine sailors suffered minor injuries in the November 28 blaze. The carrier is still operating off the California coast, and the Navy says “fire was quickly identified and extinguished through the crew’s fire-fighting efforts.”

No estimates of damage were forthcoming.

This fire is the first in a large combatant since a 2020 pier-side conflagration consumed a $1.2 billion Navy amphibious assault ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). In light of the Navy’s purported focus on fire prevention since that loss, the latest conflagration requires serious scrutiny. Are the Navy’s fire prevention efforts sinking away?

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, taking office days after the Bonhomme Richard command investigation was published, is on the hook if the carrier failed to “establish the necessary culture and standards required to change Navy fire safety outcomes in an enduring way.”

Admiral Mike Gliday, Chief of Naval Operations, is on the hook as well. A “Learning to Action Board”, established “to both implement the recommendations and to assess their ongoing execution” was to test “whether the recommendations remain in effect and whether they are providing the intended effect.”

In the aftermath of the latest shipboard fire, Pentagon leadership will be very interested in determining just how effective the Navy’s top leaders have been in driving better fire prevention measures into the fleet.

Fire prevention is important. In recent years, avoidable shipboard fires have taken an enormous toll, destroying a $2 billion nuclear attack submarine as well as the Bonhomme Richard.

Are Old Bad Habits Returning To The Fleet?

Fires do happen on aircraft carriers. They are a fact of life. But the nexus of fire with poor morale and sloppy, “corner-cutting” is a well-known phenomenon. Given that the fire isn’t the first ugly operational hiccup aboard the supposedly “ready-to-deploy” vessel, the matter is extremely serious.

In late September, a month after the ship returned from a Pacific deployment, a leak in a vent line let bilge water—oily, chemical-containing waste—contaminate the ship’s drinking water. After the fire, the second substantive operational anomaly in little more than a month, morale and command climate must be assessed. Relatively unavoidable accidents do happen at sea, but avoidable accidents can also be toxic by-products of a demoralized, unready crew or a tired and broken ship.

The Navy knows exactly what it needs to look for. A retrospective study on Navy fires, completed in mid-2021, identified eight underlying issues that had previously either exacerbated or contributed to major fires aboard Navy ships.

The Navy’s no-nonsense list of “clear or probable indications of underlying issues” are easy to detect. The indicators ranged from improper handling and stowage of combustible and hazardous material to noncompliance with basic procedures and requirements. Regardless of the fire’s ultimate outcome, if the USS Abraham Lincoln was deficient in any one of these areas, accountability up the command chain must be immediate.

It is inexcusable for a strategic asset—one of America’s few deployable aircraft carriers in a strategic theatre—to fail to meet well-known and basic fire safety expectations.

If the Navy has not followed their own fire avoidance playbook, accountability must start far from the ship. Admirals and administrators well up the chain of command must be instantly shown the door. Any “analysis paralysis” or some other failure to act must invite ruthless accountability within the top Navy leadership by the Department of Defense.

Thankfully, it has been more than a decade since America’s last major carrier fire. In 2008, a cigarette-sparked and hazardous material-fed conflagration aboard the USS George Washington (CVN 73). But the consequences were enormous. After the incident, the George Washington, bound for a long-term assignment in Japan, needed $70 million in repairs and was sidelined for three months. The unexpected repairs consumed more than 55,000 work-days in an already over-taxed repair yard, pushing much-needed submarine repair work to the back burner.

While details are scarce and the initial confusion over the number of injured personnel is not exactly confidence building—the Navy initially reported that only six sailors were hurt—the Abraham Lincoln fire seems less severe than the 2008 carrier conflagration. On the George Washington, the fire raged for 12 hours, injuring 37 sailors.

While the fire-crisped carrier is operating, emergent post-fire repairs may still force this crucial asset—one of America’s few deployable aircraft carriers—out of service, weakening the U.S. in the Pacific at a very sensitive time.

The task ahead for the Navy is a tough one. Accidents are forgivable and a strong firefighting performance is commendable. Even so, if the carrier’s material condition indicates high risk of fire, or, if the fire’s cause or the resulting injuries are attributable to measures that were known back in 2008—and re-emphasized a year ago—then the Pentagon must sweep aside the Navy’s tendencies to heap blame on the lowest ranking sailor, and, instead, demand some good old “Get Real, Get Better” accountability from the top.


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