Friday, January 12, 2007

Submarines and Submariners - Purpose of Safety Stand Downs

Submariners like to read what PigBoatSailor (PBS) writes about subs with avid interest and great respect.

Here PBS shared his rare, personal perspective on the highly unusual and recently announced submarine fleet safety stand down. Note 1

So what then is the purpose of this stand-down? PBS asks.

As a former safety director in a high tech industry, I learned both the purpose and effectiveness of safety stand downs firsthand, and our safety record was the envy of the industry:

Stand downs are the most convincing method of communicating top leadership's commitment to safety to every level of an organization. Safety stand downs are more effective to more people than examples of poor safety outcomes, whether permamnent disabilities, loss of lives, or formal punishments.

Safety stand downs are effective because they are unmistakeably expensive in terms of their cost (time sacrificed) and missions foregone. It is obvious to everyone that such drastic measures require and have top level authorization and must command everyone's earnest attention going forward. For these reasons stand downs can be used only rarely, implying circumstances have been deteriorating and are now deemed unacceptable toward the extreme. Note 2

So how and why does a sophisticated, industrial safety techique get applied to a military organization like the submarine service? The sub fleet has shrunk, and its repair and overhaul budget is being closely monitored by unsympathetic eyes in the U.S. Congress. The readiness of crew and submarine for its next mission could be more important than it was for its prior mission. Submarine COs are accountable for more than success of the current. In WWII, underperforming COs were assigned desk duties (and they were USNA graduates)!

And, who says stand downs are an industrial technique? Recall the grounding of aircraft types after accidents with unknown causes. Also, see Note 3 for the Navy's own examples.

1- source: Multimission-Capable Sub Readies for Full Operation

2- Iran: U.S. Sub Was Spying (ME: So what, no excuse for being in a bad position in the bottleneck; submarine COs are accountable for more than mission success - future availability of crew and vessel are also paramount).

3- Navy safety stand down (ORM) literature sampling: here and here (AFLOAT SAFETY STAND-DOWN GUIDE). ME: Notice that the fleet wide stand down is obviously much more costly and precedent setting. Submarines will still be silent and strange, and their missions are sometimes extremely hazardous. There is absosolutely no reason to make them more hazardous than is necessary. Great move, NAVY!

Submarines are always silent and strange.


At 12 January, 2007 07:57, Blogger Vigilis said...


You are closer to the people than I, and what you are saying shocks me. It sounds an awful lot like a loss of confidence in the submarine chain of command by its seagoing submariners!

The admirals have a tremendous stake in making this unprecedented move take hold. Too much attention has now been attracted to both the problem and their bold (yet difficult for them to live down) solution for anyone to claim they are covering their butts. Their butts are now extremely exposed! "Business as usual" is passe.

Before the year is over, I would expect the Norfolk Squadron CO to be the first sacrifice, but he will certainly not be the last, even without another publicly embarrassing accident. The stand down becomes a contract no one has the authority to void until actually engaging the enemy. Congress would not be amused, especially Sen. McCain, who is not partial to submarines like his dad.

At 12 January, 2007 15:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly hope that CSS-8 is not sacrificed. He was my last CO when I was Nav on SCRANTON in the late '90s and he was a good guy then.

As far as safety stand downs go, I seem to remember at least a couple back when I was on active duty. I want to say that after JACKSONVILLE had their collision in 1996, there was a force-wide stand down (only a day). The thing I remembered emphasizing, because we always conducted the Collisions and Grounding Brief for those, was that someone has a chance to stop whatever it is that is bad that is about to happen. At some point or another, there is always at least one individual with the correct information that will save the ship. Usually (and I say that without attempting to judge anything on MSP or NNEWS) when something bad happens, it seems there is a command climate that exists that prevents folks from doing the right thing. Then the CO is usually relieved.

The thing that surprised me about this one is that it is a week long. I do not recall a safety stand down ever being a week long. I can't help but think there have been a series of "near-misses" that we are unaware of, and between two sailors dying on a maneuvering watch and then a collision and whatever else is going on, VADM Munns finally said enough is enough.

I certainly hope that this stand down is value-added and makes a difference. We have too few submariners and submarines.

At 12 January, 2007 18:15, Blogger Vigilis said...

BullNav, while it is very disturbing that both you and PBS see similar problems in the prevailing command climate, time will tell how well the communications problem is cleared up by this stand down. Obviously, we are all hoping for the best.

The signs for success look very good so far from my experience, where (guess what?) the same senior leadership climate originally prevailed. Incidentally, I hope I am wrong about CSS-8, too.

At 12 January, 2007 23:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My apologies. I did not mean to convey a negative attitude. To the contrary, my hope is that the force realizes that we are at war and have limited assets and risks MUST BE TAKEN. I have found (especially in my current job) that a risk averse culture leads to failure. Remember Virgil, "Fortune favors the bold." In my reserve experience over the last few years, the force wants to get the job done. Just gotta get rid of the nukes...

At 13 January, 2007 20:26, Blogger Vigilis said...

BullNav, no need to apologize. I intend shortly to post regarding the truly amazing talent and grit of submarine COs, who are piled on with increasing regularity.

While I honestly believe what I have represented so far, that understates the highly unusual magnitude of challenges submariners routinely face, particularly submarine COs. I am backing off all criticism of the Newport News accident forthwith.


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