Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Chicoutimi Incident, Revisited

Now that the crippled submarine HMCS Chicoutimi is back in port, the Canadian government has recalled its Victoria-class submarines pending an inquiry into this incident. This is of course a standard procedure; you'll recall that when the space shuttle Columbia exploded, the other shuttles were also grounded.

While there's a lot of political gas to be generated out of this, we have to remember that real people have to work onboard these subs, and the inquiry's first priority is to address the concerns of our submariners. From my standpoint, there are two things to look at: firefighting procedures, and casualty procedures. The first one is obvious; the second one is because from news reports, there was no medical personnel on board other than those trained in standard first aid.

So there are questions to be raised:

1. How and where did the fire start?

2. What equipment was available to fight it when it first broke out?

3. If the late Lt. Chris Saunders was the first to respond to it, what did he do?

4. Did he have access to a breathing apparatus such as a Chemox mask, to protect himself from possible toxic fumes?

4a. If yes, why didn't he use it?

4b. If no, what actions could he have taken to protect himself?

5. Is there a standard procedure for dealing with fires of this nature, on board this type of vessel?

5a. If yes, was this procedure followed?

5b. If no, did the subsequent actions to combat the fire make sense? And why were they effective or ineffective?

6. Were professional medical personnel (i.e. a doctor or medical aide) available to be put on the crew?

6a. If yes, why were they not taken?

7. Were the crew trained to deal with a smoke inhalation injury?

8. Were there physical barriers (i.e. equipment layout, access to extinguishers) that impeded effective firefighting?

9. Did the available equipment function as required?

I could go on, and so could a whole lot of other sailors, but as you can see, we're not even near a point where political decisions at a higher level should come into question.

It's awfully tempting to view the Chicoutimi fire through the lens of partisan interests, given the federal government's historical neglect of our military and military matters; but in this case I'd argue that politics has to be put aside. Ultimately, it is up to our sailors to figure out how to use these submarines, and who have to learn how to maintain and live with them.