Deck Plate Problem Solving

Submarine wisdom: If you plan on travelling at 200 feet, you should make sure your boat is capable of no less than 400 feet.

Smallwood Hall is an enlisted barracks in Pearl Harbor named
in memory of Machinist’s Mate Third Class James E. Smallwood. Smallwood was
awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal posthumously. He was supervising the
charging of the oxygen system on board SARGO (SSN-583) alongside a Submarine
Base pier in June 1960 when he discovered a high-pressure, high-flow leak. He
managed to get another sailor to safety and seal the hatch before a violent explosion
and raging fire engulfed the charging compartment, killing him instantly. His adherence
to safety precautions prevented additional loss of life and saved the ship from
catastrophic damage.

From Navy accounts of the disaster:  USS SARGO suffers an explosion and fire in her
aft end while docked at Pearl Harbor

“The fire starts from a leak in a high-pressure line that
was pumping oxygen aboard. The explosion occurs a few moments later. When dock
units and boats are unable to bring the fire under control quickly, officers
take the SARGO a short distance from the dock and submerge it with the stern
hatch open to put out the blaze. The Navy says the ship’s nuclear reactors were
sealed off and there was “absolutely no danger of an explosion from the
reactor compartment.” The submarine is extensively damaged and is
drydocked taking three months to repair. The SARGO is the first nuclear ship in
the Pacific Fleet and was scheduled to take the visiting King and Queen of
Thailand on a cruise the next day.”

The unthinkable happens in an instant. I participated in a
number of oxygen charging evolutions on several of my boats and I can tell you
it is a hair raising experience requiring absolute teamwork and discipline. Modern
Nuclear Submarines generate their own oxygen while underway but also start
patrols and evolutions with their “banks” filled. This equates to a large
number of internal flasks filled with high pressure oxygen ready to release
into the atmosphere of the boat while submerged. When oxygen is in that pure state
and high pressure it is highly volatile. One single spark from a wrench, an
errant spark from a motor, a careless shipmate with a cigarette and you are
faced with a catastrophe of monumental proportions.

As an oxygen charging officer, I can assure you, you are
being very proactive about every type of problem that could occur. Every team
member is working closely with the others, communications are crystal clear,
roles are clearly defined and equipment is checked and rechecked. Reactions are
reflexive based on months and sometimes years of training. There is never a
sense of complacency because the stakes are too high.

This type of activity is ruled by a certain type of Deck
Plate Problem Solving. The real definition of this type of problem solving is
that your people are trained to solve problems where they are most likely to
occur. You prepare for any potential problems by actively seeing those problems
before they occur. Deck Plate problem solvers see the relationship between the
eight M’s in a much focused way. Those are:

  1. Machine (technology)
  2. Method (process)
  3. Material (Includes Raw Material, Consumables and
  4. Man Power (physical work)/Mind Power (brain work)
  5. Measurement (Inspection)
  6. Mother Nature (Environment)
  7. Management
  8. Maintenance

The record of the Submarine force is certainly not 100% clear from a safety perspective.
In some ways, a ship that is intentionally designed to sink brings its own
level of challenges. But being proactive “Deck Plate” problem solvers has
helped to save lives and equipment throughout our history.


The question for your organization is this: Do you practice Deck Plate problem solving? What
are the processes you routinely teach your people (if any) to identify and
solve problems at the closest point of occurrence? While you may never suffer a
catastrophic explosion at your location, the ability to solve problems
efficiently is a key component of teamwork and ultimately survival. What can
you do to change the climate where you are?


Mister Mac

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