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NEWS | May 26, 2021

Fighting fires on the Ghost Fleet

By Senior Airman Sarah Dowe 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – 80 students from 23 different agencies and support staff from 22 agencies arrived at JBLE-Eustis on May 21, 2021, for ship-based maritime firefighting training.

Maritime vessels require fuel and other combustible materials to operate properly; human error, electrical fault and other factors can lead to a maritime fire at any time.

For first responders, specialized training and preparation are key to readiness in the event of an incident aboard a ship or vessel.

Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, annually hosts members of the Robert E. Rumens Marine Firefighting Symposium.

The symposium includes six days of classroom instruction, firefighting evolutions and vessel tours where land-based firefighters learn the foundational skills required for marine firefighting.

“The goal is that the students will have an entry-level knowledge base for working a maritime incident,” said Kirk McKinley, Fort Eustis Fire and Emergency Services assistant chief of training. 

The National Defense Reserve Fleet in the James River off JBLE-Eustis, known as the “ghost fleet,” served as the training site for the symposium. The ships are currently inactive and offered a variety of vessels to train on.

“Throughout the week, we utilize both military and civilian ships to help give students the opportunity to work in an actual shipboard environment,” said Tracy Freeman, Virginia Port Authority Marine Incident Response Team and business continuity manager. “The Ghost Fleet gave students the additional experience of understanding the difficulties of mitigating an all-hazards incident, fire, hazmat, personal injury, etc.”

To successfully reach the Ghost Fleet, firefighters loaded necessary gear and equipment onto MIRT and local emergency response vessels along with a U.S. Army Landing Craft Utility for the larger equipment.

“Firefighting on a ship is drastically different than firefighting in a building,” McKinley said. “On a vessel fire, once you go below deck, there are no exits. You must come back out the way you went in.”

Other considerations during a maritime incident include the amount of water added onto the ship. Too much in one area can begin to sink the ship unless dewatering operations have begun. Unlike a building, smoke and heat remain trapped in spaces because cutting holes in walls or ceilings is not an option.

Throughout the training, firefighters honed their skills and learned to recognize the differences when approached with a vessel fire. According to Freeman, this training is a stepping stone for firefighters to learn the basics of maritime firefighting, as well as expand their knowledge and preparation to respond to future incidents.