Fire on a naval ship is a sailor’s worst nightmare. A small blaze can spread rapidly and quickly consume a vessel. There’s no place to run or hide. There’s only one course of action to survive – fight the inferno.

For the U.S. Navy, there can never be too much training to ensure a fire never gets out of control. Ships drill constantly and every member of the crew is considered a fire fighter.

The USS Midway is no stranger to the devastation of fire. In 1990, while conducting routine flight operations 125 miles northeast of Japan, an explosion ripped through the carrier’s fourth deck causing a fire that raged for 10 hours before being extinguished. It was not without cost. Sixteen Midway sailors were injured, and three lost their lives.

Although it’s been 20 years since Midway steamed the world’s oceans, the potential of a fire on board the ship now, even though it’s a museum, is taken just as seriously as the crew did when the carrier was part of the Navy’s active-duty fleet. 

To ensure that Midway’s safety and engineering teams can quickly coordinate with local fire fighters in the instance of an emergency, a massive fire drill was conducted with the San Diego Fire Department.

“There are more than 2,000 separate compartments on the ship,” said Dominick Boccia, Midway’s director of safety and security. “We want to make sure our first responders are familiar with our unusual surroundings which are much different than your local run-of-the-mill building. We have confined spaces, steep ladders, head space issues and trip hazards.”

San Diego Fire Department officials man their command post on Navy Pier during the fire drill.

For the San Diego Fire Department, understanding the popularity of Midway makes it imperative to have the best understanding of the ship.

“The size and layout of the museum can challenge any first responder without the presence of a hazard,” said Christopher Babler, a San Diego Fire Department battalion chief. “It’s like a large hi-rise building that floats on the bay exposing only one side of the ship to first responders. The museum hosts thousands of visitors each day and hundreds of special events each year. The drill gave us the opportunity to practice a safe evacuation plan and shelter in place plan while simultaneously fighting a fire and searching for victims.”

Just like the Navy, it is imperative to train like it’s an actual emergency. For this major exercise, the fire department used smoke machines to test the ship’s alarm system, and a public announcement to send messages to simulate the evacuation of the ship. It also simulated two victims who required rescuing in spaces below Midway’s hangar deck. A dozen engine companies, battalions and other fire department units participated in the drill.

Proceeding the actual drill, members of the fire department conducted multiple orientation visits to Midway to gain a better familiarity of the ship’s layout and its maze of compartments.

“We have the San Diego Fire Department on board the ship several times a year for orientation tours of vital areas and to conduct other training,” said Dominick. “This has been done with the assistance of our Midway safety department.”

Although complicated, Midway and the fire department considered the exercise a success with many lessons learned on both sides.

A San Diego firefighter accesses Midway via ladder to aircraft elevator 2.
San Diego firefighters prepare to fight a simulated fire below decks.

“Training is so important and to bring together a large-scale, well-prepared exercise like this to fruition is a success in itself, but we all learned so much that if a real emergency occurred, we would be way better prepared to handle the situation,” said Dominck. “We learned what each other is capable of and now have a coordinated more effective response.”

“This was absolutely a very successful drill in showing we are ready to handle an emergency on Midway,” said Chief Babler. “It gives me confidence and a realistic timeframe to meet the objectives and pre-established priorities when training. The drill also allowed us to see how professional and prepared Midway security and safety team operates.”

To ensure complacency doesn’t set in, emergency response drills, large and small, will be regular occurrences on Midway.

“The lessons learned were so valuable,” said Dominck.

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