Good communications and information are of the utmost importance when it comes to having an effective emergency response.
A response team that fails to communicate effectively and gather sufficient information on the details of an incident can put its members in danger and undermine response efforts.
For example, the emergency response effort to put out a fire aboard the passenger vessel Spirit of Norfolk in June 2022 was hindered by poor unified command communication and a failure to collect important information about the ship.
While no injuries were reported due to the mishandling of the response, there was at least one close call and failure to properly control the fire resulted in the Spirit of Norfolk, valued at $5 million, being declared a total constructive loss.
Engine room fire leads to evacuation
On June 7, 2022, the 169-foot-long passenger vessel, Spirit of Norfolk, was underway on the Elizabeth River in Virginia near Naval Station Norfolk. The vessel was on a two-hour sightseeing cruise with 108 people on board, including passengers and crew.
At 12:04 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard received a report of an engine room fire aboard the Spirit of Norfolk. Thanks to the crew’s quick response and with help from Good Samaritan vessels, everyone evacuated safely.
Due to certain exemptions, the Spirit of Norfolk wasn’t required to have fixed gas fire extinguishing systems in its engine room. When the crew attempted to fight the fire, they found they couldn’t safely enter the smoke-filled engine room.
Incompatible equipment leads to poor communications
Eventually, the Coast Guard decided to have tugboats that were on scene tow the vessel to the nearby Naval Station Norfolk docks so a proper firefighting effort could be staged. While the vessel was being towed, Coast Guard vessels and tugboats sprayed water into certain areas of the ship to help prevent the fire from spreading beyond the engine room. This continued throughout the response.
When the Spirit of Norfolk arrived at the dock, it was moored on the wrong side for firefighters to access the vessel’s only entrance. Instead, access was gained via ladder, which National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators found impacted firefighter safety.
Further complicating response efforts, the unified command consisting of the U.S. Navy and City of Norfolk fire departments found they had incompatible communication equipment, meaning that the recon team was unable to properly communicate with the fire attack team.
Command didn’t ask captain for help to locate hatch
Unified command’s original plan to fight the fire was to place foam in the engine room via an emergency hatch on the main deck of the ship. However, they couldn’t find the hatch and no one thought to ask the ship’s captain, who remained on scene, for help in locating it.
A four-person recon team went on board in an effort to find the hatch and gather other information, but instead had to enter the engine room via the door since the hatch couldn’t be found. They found that the flames had spread across the ceiling of the engine room. After surveying the extent of the fire, the recon team closed and secured the door, despite a significant accumulation of water in the room, before leaving the vessel to report their findings.
However, because they couldn’t communicate via radio with the fire attack team, they could only report their findings to unified command. This resulted in the fire attack team not receiving information about the unlocated hatch and state of the engine room.
Fire spreads after attack team can’t get door to close
When the four-person fire attack team went onboard to deploy foam, its members also looked for and failed to find the emergency hatch. Like the recon team, the fire attack team decided to enter the engine room via the main door.
At this point, visibility had decreased and the heat from the fire had worsened. When a member of the fire attack team turned the wheel on the watertight door to the engine room, the door exploded open causing a minor backdraft into the galley. Further, thousands of gallons of water that had been sprayed into the engine room rushed out. This rush of water separated the team and trapped one member behind the door.
At the same time, emergency responders on shore heard a loud noise and saw the Spirit of Norfolk shift hard to one side as if it was going to roll over. The fire attack team called a mayday and the unified command ordered them to evacuate, which they did. No injuries were reported.
Because the fire attack team was unable to close the engine room door due to about 4 feet of water in the area, the fire was able to spread throughout the vessel.
In its review of the response to the fire, the NTSB identified several safety concerns, including the following:
Personnel familiar with the vessel weren’t in the unified command
There were personnel on scene who could have helped the firefighting teams find the emergency hatch. The captain and another representative of the Spirit of Norfolk told unified command about the hatch, but since they weren’t part of the command they were unable to provide additional guidance. This failure to gather more information about the location of the hatch put firefighters at risk and ultimately undermined the response.
The recon and fire attack teams that boarded the vessel both wore respirators to protect against smoke and would have relied on radios for communications between the members of each team.
However, the incompatible communication equipment between Navy and City of Norfolk firefighters meant that the two teams couldn’t communicate from team to team. That resulted in poor communications between both teams and the unified command and important information didn’t get passed effectively between all three parties.
Failure to communicate regarding specific hazards
Because land-based firefighting departments weren’t included in Coast Guard contingency plans, City of Norfolk firefighters were unaware of the risks inherent with maritime firefighting. They didn’t realize the specific risk associated with opening the door to the engine room, where all the water from ship-based firefighting efforts were contained along with the fire. Not only did the land-based firefighters not have the training they needed for a ship-based incident, they also weren’t told about the hazards by their Coast Guard counterparts.
Importance of gathering and sharing vital information
To avoid future problems with joint firefighting efforts between the Coast Guard and City of Norfolk fire departments, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard use this incident and the findings in the NTSB report to improve its contingency plans related to fighting fires on passenger vessels.
The NTSB recommendations didn’t go into specific details, but considering the context of the report, the NTSB likely means that the Coast Guard should:
- make extra efforts to ensure communications equipment is compatible with that equipment used by land-based responders
- create procedures that ensure personnel with vital information get placed within the unified command structure, and
- communicate with land-based responders regarding the hazards associated with maritime-specific incident response.