Smoke fills the passageway and begins to climb up the ladder. It's a foggy, white mist that has little, almost undetectable odor. Looking down the ladder, only the top of the helmet from the person in front can be seen, as well as an orange fire hose. Pretty soon, the little glimpse of that one person down below disappears. The hose looks like it is being held by the white smoke itself.
A muffled voice comes from the distance, difficult to decipher. Again, it speaks the same drowned out words, but louder, while at the same time, tugging at the hose from below: "More slack," it says.
Down below, the hose can be traced through the twists and turns of the passageway. At the front, the nozzleman is fighting off a pretend fire, shortly before being relieved by another person. Then, he's ordered toward a ladder and out onto the deck of the ship.
This firefighting and egress scenario is one of many damage control training exercises created specifically for plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Designed to simulate what could be a real-world disaster on a ship out in the fleet, it opens their eyes, a group at a time, to such a reality.
Aboard the Naval Academy's Yard Patrol ships, plebes learn all the ins and outs of driving and operating a ship throughout their four years at the Academy. They learn how to keep her afloat and on path, free of or in control of damage, and more.
During Plebe Summer, though, the majority of the new midshipmen's time on or around the ships primarily focused on the basics of damage control. After spending much classroom time learning about naval ships, many plebes boarded thinking they knew what to expect.
"When I first walked up to a Yard Patrol ship as a plebe," remembered Midshipman 2nd Class Jeffrey Kramer, a plebe squad leader, "it was a shock. It was like, 'Oh, I'm really in the Navy now.' I was just trying to understand what it was like [Navy]. I had no idea."
Marching up to the ships, two squads, with around 30 plebes each, arrived at a time, waiting for permission to board. Breaking down to a single file line, each plebe climbed aboard first one Yard Patrol and then another with their squads. Plebes in front helped those behind them make the several foot drop from a concrete block on the pier.
There, they saw parts of a ship in person for the first time and heard sea stories from Sailors on board who have been to the fleet.
In learning how to egress a ship in the case of a fire, as well as how to operate a CO2 bottle, recognize ship markings and bullseyes, put on firefighting equipment, and how to put out a fire, plebes accrued the gross motor skills needed to operate in case an emergency were to happen on board a ship.
"[After going through Plebe Summer], I knew if a fire had broken out while I was on my youngster cruise, I wouldn't have been completely lost," said Kramer. "I'd have had the confidence to put the fire out. This is all an introductory course, but it makes you understand that these scenarios could happen out in the fleet, or on a Yard Patrol here."
Out on the pier, the damage control training continued for plebes for several weeks. By the end of the summer, they would all be tested on how to apply dewatering techniques such as soft and jubilee patches, on firing up and on using a P100 pump to remove water from a space.
If they don't learn this - if they don't apply the patches to secure enough of the water from the leaking pipes on scene, for example, they might leave the training soaked to the bone.
"We try to run them through a gauntlet of damage control trainings and stations," said Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Nathaniel Schilhabel, a craftmaster in charge of a Yard Patrol ship. "We emphasize situational awareness and try to motivate them and give them real world examples like how everyone in the Navy is a firefighter. They are going to be training others down the line on what they trained on today."