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USS Miami fire prompts new Navy shipyard fire safety policies

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is adopting new fire safety policies at shipyards across the country in response to the May 2012 arson that caused $700 million in damage to the USS Miami while the submarine was dry-docked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

The Navy said Tuesday that its new fire safety manual incorporates existing practices as well as “lessons learned” from the intense fire aboard the nuclear-powered submarine that was berthed at the Kittery shipyard for routine maintenance. The Miami is now being decommissioned and scrapped.

The new safety requirements apply to construction and repair of all Navy vessels at military facilities, such as the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; and at private shipyards, including Bath Iron Works. The requirements include:

-- Installing a temporary, automatic fire-detection system aboard submarines during maintenance or repairs.

-- Conducting annual fire drills to test the “full fire response plan and emergency response capability” of every repair or construction team.

-- Adopting policies on how to deal with “hot work” – jobs that involve welding, riveting or other tasks requiring a flame or a spark – as well as the proper handling of flammable or combustible materials.

“Navy leadership recognized a clear need to raise our standards and capabilities, and develop cost-effective solutions to improve fire prevention, detection, immediate response and extended response for ships undergoing industrial maintenance,” Vice Adm. William Hilarides, commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, said in a statement.

“This manual is the right long-term response to the watershed event the Miami fire represents,” Hilarides said. “It is imperative that all organizations implement the applicable requirements of this manual and ensure their fire safety and response procedures and capabilities are solid.”

The Navy said Tuesday that the full manual is not yet available for public release. A spokeswoman estimated the changes will cost $12 million up front and will carry annual costs of roughly $37 million to the shipyards.

The USS Miami, a Los Angeles-class submarine more than 360 feet long, was in dry dock at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in May 2012 when an employee intentionally started a fire on board because he wanted to leave work early. More than 100 firefighters responded to the blaze, which burned for roughly 10 hours.

Navy officials initially planned to repair the Miami, hoping to get another decade out of the 23-year-old submarine. But officials announced last August that the sub would be scrapped, after repair estimates climbed from $450 million to $700 million.

Firefighters who responded to the Miami were widely praised for their work fighting a blaze in the forward area of the submarine, where heat and smoke were trapped inside the hull. The man who set the fire, Casey James Fury, was sentenced in March 2013 to 17 years in prison and ordered to pay $400 million in restitution.

A spokesman for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard described the Miami fire as “a significant casualty.” The Navy and the shipyard carefully reviewed all aspects of the event – from fire prevention to response – in order to “ensure all lessons learned have been documented” and implemented several short-term preventative steps immediately afterward, said spokesman Gary Hildreth.

Those steps included strengthening training and the fire-response plans at the shipyard.

“For example, actions have been taken to identify and stage additional equipment and material necessary for immediate fire response,” Hildreth wrote in response to questions from the Press Herald. “Maintenance processes have been reviewed and revised to incorporate these lessons learned. . . . This is an ongoing, interactive process.”

A spokesman for General Dynamics-owned Bath Iron Works declined to comment on the new fire safety precautions because the shipyard had not yet received a copy of the new manual. They expect to receive the manual within days.

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