Friday, December 04, 2009

Attention to Detail: It Could Save Your Life

I had a brief exchange on Facebook with a friend and former shipmate of mine. It brought back memories. During the course of the discussion, he sent me a link to a write up about a fire that occurred on the ship we served together on, the U.S.S. White Plains (AFS-4).

The fire occurred in 1989. I served on the ship from 94-95, and was part of the decommissioning crew.
As part of the fire, 6 people died. The article says 161 were injured.

In boot camp, they beat the phrase "attention to detail" into our heads. I have no idea how many of us came away from that experience committed to a life of "attention to detail". I can tell you that most of my failures came from a lack of attention to detail. 

The reason for the mainspace fire on the White Plains was a lack of attention to detail. It also came from not following standard procedures. There is more to the story than the article says, although it captures the important details. For some reason, we had the JAG investigation report in the CIWS shop where I worked. I read it. It was fascinating reading, and even involved an officer physically threatening men who refused to throw defective parts over the side of the ship to cover up the failure. I believe the report said that officer was convicted and served time in Leavenworth. The Captain and Chief Engineer were relieved.

One thing that always threw me for a loop was that while I was onboard the ship, we drilled that fire over and over and over again. OK, I was only involved in that my space lost air conditioning for the several hours it took to get the engineering plant back online, but in the South Pacific, that's torture. Seriously, it's hot! A gas turbine engine starts up about as fast as a car, but it takes hours to get a steam plant back online. When the White Plains drilled that mainspace fire, they'd kill the plant, let the ship switch to emergency diesel, and run through that fire scenario. Part of the problem during the original fire is that the ship only drilled one scenario, and as good as the fire party and engineers were, they weren't trained for anything but the one scenario they did. I always wondered why we drilled that one fire so much. I always figured if the ship had another mainspace fire, it wouldn't be a duplicate of the '89 fire. That's the military for you though. It seems like rather than preparing for the future, you spend more time not repeating the mistakes of the past.

After leaving the White Plains, I spent 3 years on the U.S.S. Oldendorf (DD-972), a Spruance Class destroyer. I was onboard that ship from 95-98 when I left the Navy. It was during a time when the Navy was transitioning from a Cold War mentality to a Persian Gulf mentality. I watched senior officers and enlisted men who spent entire careers preparing to fight the Russians try to switch mentalities to a Middle Eastern conflict. It was an interesting time.

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