U.S. Navy ships experience fires in port more than is documented, and the poor record keeping means that the Navy is missing out on lessons that can prevent further incidents, a new report found. 

The study from the Government Accountability Office examined the causes, responses and analysis of ship fires, finding that greater efforts for onboard safety are needed. The GAO found that the Navy does not have the full picture of how many fires occur, because many are not officially documented. 

“Data from the Naval Safety Command shows that from May 2012 through September 2022, the Navy experienced more than 1,100 ship-fire incidents that ranged in severity from only smoke to a major fire,” the report said. 

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The GAO study said that there is no service-wide analysis of the ship fires at port and responses to them, leaving many potential lessons on how to improve fire safety from being learned. In fact, fires are under reported due to a mix of maintenance crews not being trained on how and when to report incidents as well as a lax attitude within the Navy when it comes to reporting such events, the GAO found. Added to this is an inconsistent set of reporting systems between naval commands and the ships themselves, leaving many fires not reported or lost in the mix of systems.

There were 15 major fires — defined as “fire that has progressed beyond the initial stage, beyond the ability of the initial responders (usually the ship’s force on ships in commission) to control” — between May 2008 and July 2020, which left many injured, caused more than $4 billion in damage and hurt the Navy’s readiness, the study found.  

The study ran from November 2021 through parts of April of this year. It came in response to the massive fire that broke out aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard in July 2020, one of those major fire incidents. The amphibious assault ship was in port for upgrades that would allow it to carry F-35B fighter planes. It caught fire and the flames spread. Part of the problem was that it was unclear who had clear command over the matter. The days-long blaze led the Navy to decommission the ship, given the extent of the damage. Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays was initially charged with starting the blaze, but ultimately found not guilty in 2022. The incident resulted in more than two dozen sailors being punished, including the then-commander of Naval Surface Forces.

A report after the fire found that the crews were not properly trained on dealing with the blaze and that many firefighting stations were in poor conditions.

Since the fire on the Bonhomme Richard, the Navy has announced steps to improve preparation and training in the event of fires. One big change, in response to the confusion over who had authority when the ship burned, is a new command structure to avoid delays. 

The GAO meanwhile recommends establishing a new service-wide system for properly training sailors on reporting and documenting fires so that the Navy can improve safety measures across the board from studying these incidents.

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