PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Firefighters at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard train regularly for industrial blazes, but mandates after a huge submarine fire call for an annual drill that's more extensive than anything done before.
An investigation that followed the USS Miami blaze in May 2012 found that federal firefighters didn't practice for complex and lengthy fires requiring assistance from community firefighters, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request.
That's no longer the case at Navy shipyards.
The first of the new annual drills at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was held in January. It involved a complicated scenario that tested the ability of sailors, shipyard firefighters and firefighters from four municipal departments to communicate during a simulation for a long fire aboard a submarine, said Lt. Tim Hawkins, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.
The Navy wasn't surprised to learn that the shipyard in Kittery, Maine, was capable of bringing together multiple departments successfully to battle a large fire, Hawkins said.
"We were happy that the shipyard demonstrated the ability to handle a major shipyard fire," he said. "But they already demonstrated this with the USS Miami. Their actions were pretty heroic."
It took 12 hours and help from firefighters from as far away as Connecticut to save the Miami after a worker who wanted to go home set a small fire that quickly spread while the submarine was in dry dock for a 20-month overhaul. Seven people were hurt.
The fire severely damaged living quarters, the command and control center and a torpedo room but did not reach the nuclear propulsion components at the other end of the 362-foot-long submarine.
The worker who started the fire with a lighter and a box of rags is serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison. Ultimately, the Navy decided to scrap the submarine when the repair bill grew to $700 million.
During its investigation, a fire panel convened by U.S. Fleet Forces concluded the Navy had become complacent about ship fires during repairs and overhauls because of the rarity of such incidents, the success of fire prevention programs and a false sense of security created by the presence of federal firefighters.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, where the Miami was based, has called for a congressional inquiry, something that's supported by all four unions at the shipyard, said Michael Crouse, director of the Professional Firefighters of Maine.
Firefighters are concerned about budget cuts and a regionalized command structure that takes decisions away from the local shipyard commander, among other things, he said. Firefighters warned Navy Secretary Ray Mabus of the dangers of budget cuts three weeks before the Miami fire, he added.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King in Maine have declined to say publicly whether they support such an inquiry.
The Navy blamed itself for failing to incorporate lessons from past fires into training. It also noted there was no required certification for firefighters to be trained in shipboard fires and that firefighters who battled the blaze weren't as familiar with the submarine layout as they wanted to be.
Federal firefighters say they conducted walk-throughs and trained aboard submarines, but the January drill allowed local firefighters to familiarize themselves with the sub layout as well.
"It definitely will help, God forbid if it happens again, to have mutual aid companies have a better idea of what they're coming into," said Mike Melhorn, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters F-123 at the shipyard.
Associated Press writer Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.