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South Jersey

Monday, April 16, 2001

Firefighters prepare for battleship emergencies

Courier-Post Staff

The Haddonfield Symphony will commission a composition A workman was disassembling a paint sprayer inside a World War II museum ship in Texas last week when he created a spark, igniting fumes from a nearby can of paint thinner.

The fire that broke out inside the flag bridge on the superstructure of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, in Corpus Christi, became so intense it melted some of the ship's steel and destroyed the room. Luckily, the workman escaped and no visitors were on the ship at the time. Museum officials said local firefighters and staff had no shipboard firefighting expertise and had difficulty getting water to that upper deck quickly enough to extinguish the fire with minimal damage.

An incident like that is why the Camden Fire Department was in Philadelphia on a retired Navy ship last week practicing procedures for handling fires and other emergencies that could occur on the soon-to-open battleship USS New Jersey museum in Camden.

"Ships offer a new set of circumstances for the firefighter. They have no windows or elevators. The stairways are steep, inclined and in narrow spaces with difficult-to-reach places," said Paul Price, chief of Battalion 1 and the fire academy in Camden.

Price, who has coordinated the training with the Navy, said the lack of windows makes ship fires more deadly because there are no wide open spaces inside for heat and smoke to escape. It's also easy to get lost because decks and passageways look the same.

He said nearly 200 city firemen are learning how to handle flooding, injured victims and victim removal, and are being taught the layout of ships and their hazards so they can better respond to possible emergencies aboard the battleship.

The ship is undergoing $7 million in renovations at the Broadway Terminal but is to be moved to the downtown Waterfront near the Aquarium for a Sept. 2 opening.

In addition to firefighters, emergency medical technicians who run the city's ambulances and Virtua Health paramedics are also participating in a effort to learn how to deal with shipboard emergencies.

"Protecting the New Jersey is important not only to Camden but to the state of New Jersey and the Navy," said Navy fire chief Kenneth Barber.

Last week, Camden firefighters snaked water hoses between the decks and through the passageways of a guided missile frigate - the ship that an Iraqi missile struck in 1987, killing 37 sailors.

The 445-foot-long ship - only half the length of the New Jersey - is decommissioned and docked at the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility near the old Navy yard. The firefighting instructors are from the Naval Sea Systems Engineering Station fire department that responds to shipboard emergencies in the mothball fleet and Philadelphia Naval Business Center.

Firefighter Joseph Tull, 32, of Camden, stood on a ladder to hook rigging to the ceiling of the main passageway on the main deck. The rigging was then used by firefighters to lift and lower basket litters with a 175- pound mannequin to train for rescues.

"It's unbelievable how narrow the spaces are on a ship. It helps us prepare for the New Jersey," he said.

Firefighter Tony Mickles called the job "very dangerous" not only because there is no place for smoke to go in a closed compartment but also because of the stepping hazards, such as the raised doorway thresholds and the need to carry portable folding ladders wherever they go.

"We also have been told that because it's a ship, whatever water we use to fight a fire has to be pumped out later," Mickles said.

Tull said he can hardly wait for the battleship - largest ever built by the United States, one of the Navy's most decorated warships and a veteran of action in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Lebanon.

"It has a lot of history and will brighten up the Waterfront," the firefighter said.

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