Submarines tackle hell’s inferno in fire-fighting exercise

Submariners have spent a week in the fires of hell to ensure they can deal with the biggest threat to the Silent Service.

Despite the public perception of submarines, fire – or rather smoke – will knock you out long before your boat floods.

So experienced submariners from across the RN Submarine Service converged on HMS Raleigh in Torpoint for five days of intensive instruction – theory in the classroom, practical in the adjacent fire trainer where they descend into two decks of red-hot, smoke-filled, pitch-black hell, working through mock-ups of a galley, bunk and mess decks, engine and manoeuvring room.

Every five years the most experienced deeps – coxswains, chief stokers, the executive officer (basically all the people who deliver training on a boat to their fellow crew) – must undergo the advanced fire-fighting course.

It reaches its climax with a six-hour assessment to prove that they can deal with a conflagration inside a boat – and can pass on their knowledge to their shipmates.

Prevention is the best cure – you don’t want a fire on a submarine

Warrant Officer Pete Farrell of HMS Triumph

You might have minutes to deal with water pouring in. You have seconds to deal with a fire. The watchword is: fight it fast, fight it hard and don’t use too much water.

“Prevention is the best cure – you don’t want a fire on a submarine,” says WO Pete Farrell of HMS Triumph. “You’re still under water. You can’t vent smoke, you can’t get fresh air in, and you have to be clever in the way you use water to extinguish a fire – you don’t want water in the people tank.”

Donning an emergency breathing mask in mere seconds is a matter of life and death.

When the Canadian boat Chicoutimi – formerly HMS Upholder – caught fire a decade ago, the crew had the fire out in 75 seconds.

By then, however, one man was fatally injured, more than half a dozen shipmates needed treatment for smoke inhalation – and yet every one of the casualties had their emergency breathing masks on inside ten seconds.

Within two minutes your attack breathing apparatus team must be in action. A fully-suited-up fire-fighting team has eight minutes to be on the scene.

“Most fires are put out quickly by the people who discover them. If you’ve got to put on the full kit, then things are pretty serious,” says WO1 Matt Farr of HMS Vengeance.

Observing from a safe distance is Raleigh’s fire-fighting training officer CPO Andy Heywood.

“This is the best job in the Navy. I get to play with fire – but the real satisfaction is from the crews passing through. These lads eat, sleep, dream and breathe fire-fighting all week long.

“The young lads are the best. They’re like sponges – they want to know everything and soak it in.”