March 10, 2016, by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst – We’ve all been through a fire drill or two. The screeching alarm starts, the teachers or office safety monitors lead us all to the nearest exit, and then we make sure everyone made it out. At worst it’s a hassle, and for the most part the drill makes sense. If the building you attend classes or work in is on fire, it’s nice to know the quickest route to the exit.
Now imagine that your building is floating in the Southern Ocean. There is no neighborhood fire department, and the only way to evacuate is in an inflatable raft. Imagine that there’s a lot more to worry about, too: like too much of the Southern Ocean coming into the building.
If you work in the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, you don’t have to imagine all that, because it’s a part of everyday life. For the crew of the nation’s only icebreaker capable of operating in Antarctic conditions, the staggering distance that separates them from any semblance of infrastructure or assistance make emergencies all the more threatening. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that they have a plan in place.
“It’s been proven that you respond the way you train,” said Cmdr. Mary Ellen Durley, the Polar Star’s executive officer. “We are in a non-stop, 24-7 training mode.”
The crew has drills that touch on every realm of potential emergency. Training teams cover damage control, engineering, medical and navigational safety. Durley oversees it all as the integrated training team leader. She makes sure that the crew can respond to a sucking chest wound in the galley at the same time as a fire in an engine space.
Drills range from ship-wide to very specific tests of individual watchstanders. Even the newest members, straight out of Coast Guard boot camp, are learning skills that could save the rest of the crew in an emergency. Firemen, the cutter’s most junior engineers, stand a security watch that puts them first on scene during machinery casualties.
“If there’s a major lube oil leak, a minor lube oil leak, a crank case explosion,” Fireman Joseph Guenther, a member of the Polar Star’s main propulsion division, rattled off a list of the engineer department’s worst nightmares, ”we have to know, before we are even allowed to walk around by ourselves, how we would respond.”
The cutter’s blend of 40-year-old equipment and modern technology makes learning the intricacies of emergency response quite an undertaking. That’s why the engineer department goes through basic engineering casualty control exercises, known as BECCEs, every week.
BECCEs test every level of the hierarchy. The security watchstander heads to an affected space to investigate while the engineer of the watch, back in main control, provides direction and responds to simulated readings on the ship’s control panel.
“You can always read a whole bunch of predetermined situations, but in reality that’s not what is going to happen,” said Guenther. “You have to use what you know to infer what the abnormal condition or the casualty is.”
And that’s true of any training situation. The crew does its best to prepare for more likely mishaps, while also casting a wide net for the unexpected. Few activities are as capable of causing a surprise injury or mechanical failure as icebreaking is. For that, the teams that provide the training tailor their drills to the unique platform.
“A lot of it is learning firefighting practices or flooding response, any of these have general themes that you can apply to any ship,” said Lt. j.g. Cyrus Unvala, a deck watch officer in the Polar Star’s operations department. “And then learning how they apply specifically to this ship is also a big part of what we’re doing in these drills.”
Unvala is Durley’s training officer, and his role in that collateral duty is to track and organize the constant flow of learning that takes place on board. The Polar Star was his first assignment after graduation from Coast Guard Academy, and it’s the very training he administers that helped him feel confident with the otherwise overwhelming responsibility of a deck watch officer.
“I remember the early days, when I was here standing some of my first watches, coming up to the bridge and being really nervous about what could happen,” he said. “Both from seeing actual casualties and from running drills, you definitely feel more comfortable. If a casualty happens, that’s out of your control, but knowing that you have the resources and knowledge to respond to it as best you can definitely changes your mindset.”
Every summer around 30 percent of the Polar Star crew leaves for a new assignment, to be replaced by people who may or may not have ever served at sea before. Being able to leave the pier with the confidence that everyone is prepared to respond during an emergency is really the main focus for Durley and other members of the command. It’s training and drills that pave the way to that sense of self-sustainment.
The experience gained by the crew doesn’t come solely from planned simulations, though. Over the course of a patrol, particularly for an aged cutter like the Polar Star, actual casualties and genuine emergencies are not so abnormal, and only add to the crew’s readiness.
“I don’t have to set the training environment, we’ve had four or five actual casualties, so people have responded to smoke in the turbine room or a potential shaft leak,” said Durley. “They know, and they are there. The rapid response team is the senior members who are on the ball and ready to respond, and they need the backup team which is the people we’re training every single day.”