The SS American Victory Merchant Marine ship, which served the United States of America in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam as a transporter of soldiers and supplies, is moored in the Port of Tampa, Florida. A group of political and business leaders brought it to the area from Los Angeles, California, with the intention of having it serve as a museum. Today, the ship serves as a maritime museum and as a training center for Tampa firefighters. Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue has used the ship for in-service training classes in confined space rescue, special operations, and simulated shipboard firefighting. The local community college also uses the ship for fire academy classes.


Tampa Fire Rescue conducted a six-week in-service training class onboard the vessel. Training coordinators developed lesson plans and training scenarios in the disciplines of marine firefighting, confined space rescue, incident management system, and familiarity of the ship’s layout and systems, with special attention to the engine room. The entire department participated in the in-service class taught to on-duty personnel.

The marine firefighting in-service training consisted of a four-hour lecture and a tour of the ship followed by a four-hour practical scenario. Smoke machines and a mannequin were used for additional realism. Tampa firefighters carried equipment from their apparatus and stretched hoselines from the engine companies to simulate a fire onboard ship. To create realism, the outcome of the scenarios depended on the response of the companies and incident commanders. The mistakes were allowed to compound and negatively affect the incident, even to the point of simulating a lost firefighter. This was done to stress the importance of following department standard operating procedures, policies, and industry standards. All avenues of extinguishment were discussed, including hoselines, carbon dioxide, AFFF, and high-expansion foams. Other topics covered were ventilation points, dewatering, attacking the compartment from six sides, and the many fire protection systems onboard various ships.

The companies were held in staging and dispatched according to arrival sequence; the first-arriving company assumed command. The incident commander (IC) sought out a ship representative who was an instructor and reviewed the ship’s layout plan to gather as much information as possible about the fire: location, area of involvement, details of the fire attack prior to the fire department’s arrival, access to the fire area, ship stability, and accountability of the ship’s crew. Using this information, the IC identified the most efficient method for attacking the fire and then assigned incoming companies to one of the following tasks: water supply, ventilation, search and rescue, and rapid intervention team (RIT).

(1) The SS American Victory. Its dimensions are a length overall of 455 feet, a beam of 62 feet, and a draft of 28 feet with a displacement of 10,750 tons of water. Its five main cargo holds have a capacity of 7,612 tons. (Photos by David Hohenthaner.)


Companies used equipment from their trucks; officers determined the size of the hose and the best access point. For this scenario, many creative approaches and hose sizes were used.

  • A five-inch hose with a manifold or a three-inch line with a gated wye from an engine company was carried up an aerial ladder or pulled over the side of the ship and placed just inside one of the ship’s openings or on the deck.
  • Preconnected hose from an engine company was loaded onto a firefighter’s shoulder and carried onto the ship. This provided more hose and made it easier to connect and extend it from the five-inch manifold or three-inch gated wye.
  • Using the high-rise hose pack worked well; however, it had limitations because of the amount of hose carried in it.

The above hose was reduced to 21/2 inches or a 13/4-inch attack line, as determined by company officers. As hose crews advanced into the ship hold with smoke flowing out, they had to search for the fire and a reported lost civilian. The fire crews used hoselines and ropes to provide a means for returning to the point of entry. However, if they could not locate the fire or victim, they tied off the rope and followed it out. A second fire attack group traced the rope and began its search at the point where the first group ended its search.

On occasion an instructor would tell a firefighter he was lost and to lie down. The PASS device was activated, and the RIT was deployed. Inside a ship, it may be difficult to locate a sounding PASS device because of the steel structure, cargo, the unusual shape, and the size and depth of the compartments. During this drill, it was discovered that companies and the RIT had some difficulties; however, they were able to find the victim or downed firefighter. This was done to practice the lost/downed firefighter protocol. The RIT had to move the downed firefighter up or down a level to simulate a rescue. The scenarios were in real time. If the RIT was able to rescue the lost/downed firefighter in a reasonable time, it was considered a save; otherwise, it was considered a firefighter death.


The RIT was able to move a downed firefighter using the following procedures:

  • At minimum, two firefighters—one above and one below—were needed (because of the narrow stairs in a vessel, usually only one firefighter can fit below the downed firefighter).
  • RIT members worked together using webbing and ropes to lift and lower the downed firefighter.
  • The RIT used webbing wrapped around the SCBA shoulder straps with the SCBA waist strap placed between the downed firefighter’s legs.
  • The RIT may place a rope or webbing wrapped around the firefighter’s torso and under the arms.
  • A rope was very helpful in moving the firefighter up a stairwell. The RIT used the rope already attached to the firefighter to lift the firefighter up the stairs. As the RIT member above pulled on the rope, the RIT members below the downed firefighter put both legs of the downed firefighter on their shoulders, and together they pushed the firefighter up the stairs.
  • When it was possible to use a 2:1 haul system, it was helpful in lifting the downed firefighter.


Ship interiors are well known for many dangers, even when visibility is good. To remove the smoke generated during the drill, Tampa Fire Rescue’s ventilation company used an 84,000-cfm fan with flexible tubing mounted on a truck chassis to ventilate the ship. Openings had to be carefully monitored to complete the ventilation. To make the attack as safe as possible, the companies advanced the hoselines with positive pressure at their backs, pushing smoke to ventilation outlets—doors and hatches—ahead of the firefighters. Instructors monitored safety and evaluated the activities of fire groups.


Firefighting teams were evaluated to ensure that department policies and procedures were followed. Particular attention was directed to the following areas:

  • Did the firefighters work in teams of two to four?
  • Did they use safety lines in addition to hoselines to provide a way out, if needed?
  • Techniques for locating and rescuing lost/downed firefighters and victims were evaluated.
  • Did they follow SOPs and department policies regarding Mayday procedures?
  • Were radio traffic standards/procedures followed during Mayday procedures?
  • Were department policies followed in activating and deploying the RIT?
  • Did firefighters use all personal protective equipment available?


Although there are many areas in which to evaluate commanders involved in ship firefighting, the main topics for this exercise were the following: sustainable water supply from dockside, if needed; hose size selection and layout; personnel accountability; lost/downed firefighter procedures; RIT preparedness and response; and water applied into ship (dewatering).

(2) Crews in the engine compartment advancing hoselines and searching for the fire and a possible missing ship member.


(3) Crews preparing lines before initiating the attack on the fire.


RIT and Search Operations

The IC’s ability to handle the complicated incident was part of the evaluation. The IC coordinated the operations and efforts to extinguish the fire and search for lost victims and downed firefighters. This was done to evaluate the use of Mayday procedures and RIT operations from the command point of view. The lost/downed firefighter was encouraged to talk on the radio and provide information pertaining to the last known location(s) of the firefighter/victim in addition to simulating distress (gasping for air and yelling for help). The IC and the RIT were put under a considerable amount of stress during the rescue of a lost/downed firefighter.


During the rescue efforts, the accountability system was used to maintain control of all firefighters’ activities and to keep track of personnel. An accountability officer was placed at the opening of the cargo hold or engine compartment, whichever was used during the scenario, to restrict the firefighters working in the hazard zone. All others were in staging, rehab, or some other assigned area. This officer also kept track of SCBA airtime for those in the hazard area. Using 4,500-psi air bottles rated for 45 minutes, the crews were given a total time of 15 minutes (the 1/3 rule: 1/3 of the air for tactical activities, 1/3 of the air for removal of crews, and 1/3 of the air in reserve) to search for victims and extinguish the fire. The time was limited to ensure that crews would have enough air to get out of the space.


Communications may be a problem because of the nature of the ship’s all-steel construction. The IC may need to place firefighters on different decks and dockside to provide good communications. The IC may have to use runners to deliver information where it is needed.

(4) Crews must be aware of the dangers inside of ships as they advance hoselines. The many narrow and steep ladders and walkways present hazards that make it easy to slip and to get lost. They must also have another means to find their way out, like a search rope, in addition to the hoseline, which, incidentally, may lead to a ship’s hose cabinet.


(5) The incident commander will have a better idea of where and how to direct crews attacking the fire after gathering information from the captain and the ship’s engineer.



The approach to the in-service training was done to create the most realistic incident possible and to practice tactics before they are needed in an actual incident. The benefit of this type of training is that the personnel and the department learn from the mistakes made at a training exercise before the skills are used at a real incident. Following are some of the lessons learned.

  • Communications will be an obstacle. Firefighters with radios may need to be placed on every deck and dockside to provide reliable communications. The IC may have to use runners to disseminate information and orders.
  • The fire service has taught for years that firefighters should follow the hoseline out to safety. Be very careful when using this method onboard a ship: The hose may have been used by the ship’s crew before calling the fire department and may lead to the ship’s hose cabinet instead of out of the fire area.
  • Strict accountability is a must to avoid the tragedy of a lost/downed firefighter. Division/sector officers must control entry points and ensure strict adherence to the procedures in other assigned areas.
  • The high-rise hose pack worked well; however, it had limitations because of the amount of hose carried in it. Preconnected hose loaded onto a firefighter’s shoulder and carried onto the ship provided more hose and made it easier to extend.
  • Because ships are built in many countries and hose threads/equipment may be different, the quickest and most dependable water supply may be from fire department companies.
  • RIT teams must be prepared mentally and physically and must be equipped to do the job. Ropes made it easier to lift downed firefighters; however, it is an exercise that requires practice and repetition.
  • To carry downed firefighters up stairs, the RIT member above pulled on a rope attached to the downed firefighter. At the same time, the RIT members underneath placed both legs of the downed firefighter on their shoulders and pushed the firefighter up the stairs.
  • Search ropes were used as a means of egress. It was discovered that as crews went lower and lower, the ropes would stretch and go over railings and obstacles, changing the path for the returning crew. To prevent this, crews were instructed to tie off the rope at turns and at every change of level.
  • PASS devices were used. Even with the steel structure, RIT members were able to locate downed firefighters and get them to safety. Keep in mind that the sound could bounce off walls or any steel object in the ship. Firefighters must know without a doubt what their particular department PASS device sounds like, so practice with them.
  • Ship fires are personnel-intensive operations and require multiple alarms. Call for enough staffing early.
  • When searching with ropes, tie off the end so the next search team can start where the first team ended.

EMILIO F. SALABARRIA, a 19-year veteran of Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue, is a captain on the hazardous materials team. He has associate’s degrees in fire science and emergency medical services and is an adjunct instructor for Hillsborough County Schools/Leary Technical Center and Hillsborough Community College.

The SS American Victory provided Tampa Fire Rescue firefighters with a unique and realistic training opportunity, made possible by the efforts of many individuals from the SS American Victory Ship Group and the Tampa Fire Rescue Training Division. Tampa Fire Rescue firefighters praised the training exercises and the opportunities provided by this unique partnership. The fire service has become very diverse and must seek out training possibilities to better prepare firefighters for a myriad of potential responses. Look around your community, and work with industries to train your department’s personnel to the highest possible level.

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