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Bonhomme Richard’s Life Support Lesson

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Views expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of AUSN

In late October of 2021, the U.S. Navy released its extraordinarily illuminating investigative report on the disastrous fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6).[1] This document helps shed light onto what is quite possibly the most costly calamity to have hit the Navy in decades. Of critical note is the report’s focus on the extensive string of failures that contributed to the total loss of the ship. There are vital lessons here that should not only be remembered, studied and applied to training and policy moving forward, but, in a larger context, act as a clarion call regarding the safety and effectiveness of extreme life support systems.

To recap, the Bonhomme Richard was a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship – a 40,000 ton, multi-billion dollar national defense asset, in service since the late 1990s and heavily responsible for supporting Marine Corps operations around the globe. Tragically, on July 12, 2020, it caught on fire – about the worst thing that can happen to a ship besides being destroyed in combat – while sitting dockside for maintenance in San Diego. Once ignited, flames swiftly flared out of control, spread throughout the vessel, and burned for days despite the valiant attempts of multiple firefighting agencies working continuously to snuff out the blaze.

After five days, the fires were eventually extinguished – but the damage was so extensive that the Navy determined the Bonhomme Richard to be a total loss and not worth repairing; fixing the ship could have taken seven years and cost as much as $3.2 billion.[2] Only a few months after the incident, the decision to scrap the ship was made. Fortunately, despite the loss of a critical naval asset, the inferno did not result in any loss of life – although 40 sailors and 23 civilians were treated for minor injuries.

According to the Navy’s investigation report, a litany of unsafe conditions and practices, equipment breakdowns and failure to follow standard policies and procedures contributed to an accident-prone environment aboard the vessel – and also marred the entire response effort once the fire started. These problems not only facilitated the fire’s spread, but also stalled and complicated mitigation efforts. In fact, it might not be a stretch to suggest that had some of these conditions and failures not occurred, the damage may not have been so extensive, and the Bonhomme Richard may have been saved.

The list of failures – from human error and confusion, to dysfunctional equipment, to blatant disregard for even the most basic of safety standards – is appalling. Where the fire began, spaces were filled with flammable and combustible materials, like wooden pallets. Gear and equipment cluttered common spaces – always a safety hazard on ship. Sailors didn’t have radios to communicate with each other once the fire was started – they had to use their own phones. Fire response teams found numerous fire stations to be non-operational – missing firehoses and broken connectors. Alarmingly, “187 of the ship’s 216 fire stations – 87.5 percent – were in Inoperable Equipment Status condition at the time of the fire.[3]

Sailors didn’t have enough proper safety gear – including breathing equipment. Hatches and ship compartments couldn’t be shut – critical to isolating fire on ship – because maintenance equipment prevented closure. The ship’s Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) system wasn’t maintained, and thus wasn’t deployed – and, sailors lacked training on how to use it anyway. Investigators found that sailors didn’t seem to have ready access to emergency egress breathing devices (EEBD) – and there are conflicting reports about whether all the berthing spaces were equipped with them. Command and control throughout the ordeal was severely lacking – and a delayed and uncoordinated response between the Navy and local fire agencies hampered the overall containment effort.[4]

Even if this wasn’t the first time that fire threatened a sophisticated platform with small enclosed spaces – or its crew – this combination of failures is simply astounding. Naval analysts have been quick to note that the Navy sought to address fire response procedures following the 2012 fire that destroyed the USS Miami (SSN-775), a Los Angeles class attack submarine. Unfortunately, it appears that many of the policy and procedure changes recommended following the Miami fire were not adhered to on the Bonhomme Richard.[5]

Interestingly, there are parallels between the Bohomme Richard fire and safety incidents aboard the Russian MIR space station (which also had a fire in February of 1997). In fact, the MIR collision with the unmanned supply ship Progress M-34 in the summer of 1997 led to crew members having to manually cut equipment lines that were running through the hatches in order to secure the station.[6]

As the CEO of a company that specializes in designing both life support systems on spacecraft and fire prevention and containment technologies for U.S. Navy ships, I truly hope that we can learn from the Bonhomme Richard fire. Common to all of these incidents is that the inability for humans to see and breathe is an early inhibitor to reaction and preventing wider impact of threat. Moreover, it is clear that communications platforms, life support technology – from individual-based breathing equipment to vessel-wide systems – and the ability to see clearly in dark, confined spaces, are all key to getting an early handle on a crisis, coordinating a response, and keeping people safe.

Safety comes down to individual people being able to do the job – and if improperly equipped, trained, and protected, the job doesn’t get done, and loss is the result. And while it is easy to get complacent, constant training in all of these areas, and maintenance of these items is vital; good equipment is not much good if the crew doesn’t know what to do with it.

The significance of the loss of the Bonhomme Richard cannot be understated – it is a highly unfortunate tragedy that will have repercussions on a wide range of issues and concerns for years to come. It is a massive loss for the American taxpayer. It will dent the leadership echelons of our Navy. And from a plans and operations standpoint, it will force major re-thinking regarding the Navy’s force structure, rotations and deployment schedules, and fleet composition – a real concern given the need for a robust naval presence in the Asia-Pacific Theater.

But this event will hopefully lead to meaningful adjustments in – and serious, routine adherence to – everything from emergency response protocols, to training, to equipment proficiency.

With any luck, this time – and moving forward – we will learn and take seriously Bonhomme Richard’s critical life support lessons.

Grant Anderson, P.E. is the President & CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, a recognized leader in life support and thermal control in extreme environments. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering from Stanford University.

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