Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Susan Collins wrote to U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday regarding current minimum staffing levels for federal firefighters at Navy installations in light of the recent fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, which now appears to be the worst in-port disaster since the USS Miami fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY) just eight years ago.
“As the Navy investigates the Bonhomme Richard incident, I ask that you carefully review the risks and impacts of reduced staffing at federal fire departments. In the case of the USS Miami, the 2012 fire caused $700 million in damage and ultimately resulted in the Navy scrapping the entire Los-Angeles-class submarine rather than attempting to repair it,” said Senator Collins. “Certainly, in many cases minimal costs of risk reduction or full staffing can help to prevent and contain potentially catastrophic fires. Of note, following the USS Miami fire at PNSY, minimum fire department staffing at the shipyard was increased from 13 to 15 on-duty personnel.”
“As is the case with many federal fire departments, the department at PNSY often serves as first responders within the local area, protecting both the Navy’s submarines and property but also supporting Kittery and other nearby towns,” Senator Collins continued. “As a co-chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, I know the importance of firefighters in Maine and have worked to ensure they have all of the support they need to protect our communities. This has become all the more important as Maine and the rest of the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Earlier this year, commanding officers and Navy Region Fire chiefs were directed to take actions to reduce labor costs of the fire and emergency services program, to include reduced staffing of fire departments based on assessments of risk. For PNSY in Maine, this has meant that the fire department has operated with 13 personnel during “off-peak” times, rather than the typical 15 firefighters on-duty.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and a Co-Chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, Senator Collins has been a longstanding advocate for Maine's first responders, fighting hard to ensure they have the resources and support necessary to protect lives and property. She recently helped to secure more than $1.3 million for Maine Fire Departments to upgrade personal protective equipment and expand personnel amid COVID-19. In May, Senator Collins led a letter with Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) urging congressional leaders to take additional actions in support of first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as bolstering funding and permitting hazard pay for federal firefighters. Senator Collins’ also led efforts in April to quickly make available $100 million in emergency funding from the CARES Act for firefighters to purchase personal protective equipment.
Click HERE to read the full letter.