Fit for the Firefight
04 December 2021
Norfolk, Virginia --
The Vietnam War was in full force. It was a costly war that would take the lives of 2,559 Sailors. It was a war that would cost a total of 58,220 American service members. While it's impossible to quantify the value of even a single life, we take pride in knowing each one of these people laid down their lives for their country.
It’s easy to assume all the lives lost in the heat of battle - typical imaginings of our men far from home—fighting in a war unlike any other in the jungles of Vietnam.
Those assumptions weren’t always the case.
On the morning of July 29, 1967, USS Forrestal (CVA-59), operating in the Gulf of Tonkin, commenced air operations in preparation for the launching of a 24-plane alpha strike. At 1050, a McDonnell F-4B Phantom II aircraft began pre-flight procedures.
Suddenly, multiple electronic malfunctions on the aircraft caused one of its four 5-inch Mk-32 "Zuni" unguided rockets to fire across the flight deck, striking another aircraft, tearing it to shreds, and rupturing its fuel tank. The fuel bled from the Douglas A-4E Skyhawk and sprayed the surrounding area, creating a pool below.
One spark was all it took to ignite the fuel, creating an inferno that caused a chain reaction of nine bomb explosions across the flight deck.
The disaster lasted 18 hours, crippled the ship and claimed 134 lives. Compare that to the numbers above: more than 5% of all Navy lives lost in the Vietnam conflict were due to this one event.
“I’ve heard different people say, ‘everybody in the Navy is a [damage controlman],’” said Damage Controlman 1st Class Brent George, an instructor at Farrier Firefighting School. “That is not true, but everybody in the Navy, absolutely 100%, is a firefighter.”
During basic training, Sailors are exposed to the fundamentals of shipboard firefighting - one of the many classes during the seven weeks of boot camp. While there, Sailors learn about the Forrestal and watch video clips from the actual fire. It's a harrowing moment that forces Sailors-in-the-making to witness a firsthand account of the dangers they may face serving aboard a ship.
The fundamentals learned at Recruit Training Command create the foundation on which all Sailors must build their knowledge of firefighting and damage control. It's a building block on a journey to live on a ship and learn to protect Navy lives and assets.
This is Farrier Firefighting School’s mission.
Named for the heroic deeds of Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Gerald Farrier, who led one of the fire parties during the initial moments of the Forrestal disaster, this school serves the critical need of more advanced firefighting and damage control training. During the training, Sailors are exposed to simulations designed to recreate real shipboard emergency scenarios.
“When you get sent to your ship, you learn more and more,” said George. “When you come here, you take that stuff that you learned from your ship and you can put it into action. Here, you actually get to put the water on the fire.”
There is little that can substitute the value of realistic simulation when it comes to training. At Farrier, Sailors attend the school to face different classes of fire inside mock-ship compartments that reach temperatures of around 200 degrees.
“It really puts it into perspective for them what it would be like to fight a main-space fire,” said George. “We’re talking about 200 degrees. That is nothing compared to some of the temperatures you could see inside an actual main space. It is hot! Even though we're instructors, we still are in the hot spaces with the students the whole time, sometimes even longer.”
Most training courses run the entire day for about a week. They start early, especially in the summer, to avoid the naturally higher temperatures of the Virginian sun. The spaces get hot enough without the help of the southern climate.
“Students leave here with a better sense of knowledge of how to combat various classifiers with the appropriate agents,” said Chief Damage Controlman Kelly Blum, Senior Instructor, Farrier Firefighting School. “[They learn to] think outside the box. Not every situation is a perfect situation. We're always open to new ideas here at Farrier when they come up with them. It surprises us, but we push it forward to the fleet to give it more tools for their toolbox.”
In this way the school acts as a sort of feedback loop. On one hand, the school sees 10,000 to 15,000 students a year - training them and equipping them with the knowledge and fundamentals needed to properly manage or take part in a repair lockers aboard a ship. On the other hand, students can sometimes provide new insights into shipboard firefighting, which can make a real difference on a fleet-wide level.
“The fundamentals of firefighting are generally the same: put wet stuff on hot stuff,” said Lt. Natalie Harper, Officer in Charge, Farrier Firefighting School. “There is a little more science behind it; we understand a little bit more, and the training has changed. Ten years ago, they used to just burn diesel fuel in a pit and put water on it. Now, it's a little bit more controlled. We have more safeties in place, but the fundamentals are all still there. Ultimately, I would definitely feel comfortable going back to a ship with any of these Sailors.”