Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate
Mobile, Alabama, is known for bringing Mardi Gras to the United States, for the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War, and as home to Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige. Few are aware of the important maritime research contributions a Mobile facility has delivered for nearly 50 years.
“Fire safety of vessels – whether Coast Guard, Navy, commercial or private – improved significantly in part due to the work of the Joint Maritime Test Facility,” said Rich Hansen, Surface branch chief at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut. The RDC partners with the Naval Research Laboratory in operating the JMTF. “Fire at sea used to be a very deadly event, but because of regulatory advancements and work done at the JMTF, you don’t see the high loss of life that occurred in the past.”
The idea for a full-scale shipboard fire test facility was conceived by marine industry representatives in the mid-1960s. A Shipboard Fire and Safety Testing Facility was proposed by the Coast Guard Office of Merchant Vessel Safety in 1967 and a 10-year lease of Little Sand Island in Mobile Bay was secured from the State of Alabama in September 1968. The facility was established as a Coast Guard Headquarters unit with technical control vested in the Office of Research and Development in May 1970; control later was transferred to the RDC. Currently the JMTF is managed at the RDC under the Environment and Waterways Branch.
Over the years, JMTF personnel analyzed maritime fire hazards and fire suppression alternatives. They also tested a wide range of safety and security options, including advanced robotic systems that might be used for investigation or firefighting; underwater imaging systems to be used for things like hull surveys; potential aluminum structure substitutes; and lithium battery casualty mitigation.
Researchers tested fire modeling scenarios to understand and verify what is likely to happen in different fire situations and how quickly it will happen. As a result, fires that used to last for hours can now be extinguished in minutes. Much of the testing supported international maritime regulations. One example is Halon replacement options proposed by industry that were tested by the JMTF, including gaseous agents such as HFC-227ea, which is now frequently used in shipboard engine rooms and similar areas. The JMTF helped develop system requirements when it was determined that a water mist system would be used on the Navy LPD-17 San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock ships and the Coast Guard National Security Cutter.
Today, the facility’s prime asset is a burn pan, a tank used to simulate a real-world marine environment to test the burning of oil or fuel as a response to oil spills, known as in-situ burning. This is the only U.S. test facility able to conduct full-scale maritime test-burns of oil on a simulation of open water, including waves. In the 1990’s the American Society for Testing and Materials and JMTF researchers used the burn pan to develop and evaluate the standard for the construction of fire-resistant oil spill containment boom. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 created renewed interest in oil spill research and resulted in two recent burn pan experiments designed to increase the efficiency of in-situ burning. Several more experiments are being considered, with each test taking up to a year to plan and execute.
In recent years the island also served as a non-lethal munitions test range for the development of PepperBall tactics and the protected cove was used to conduct a key piece of research on survival suits following the sinking of the SS El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin. Human-weight mannequins were dressed in the same model immersion suits carried on the ill-fated ship, and then floated to determine how much water would seep in after two weeks. The results informed the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation.
Throughout the years, the island and the research have been about partnerships, with the prime partnership being between NRL and RDC. The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping under the United Nations, utilized JMTF to create requirements. Factory Mutual, a global certification program for various fire protection products, used JMTF for standards testing. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement recently worked with the JMTF and its burn pan on oil spill testing. The Department of Energy, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, National Research Center Canada, the Royal Australian Navy, and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in the United Kingdom are among the many partners that RDC researchers have worked with through the years.
“The Coast Guard is proud of the accomplishments that have come from this unique test facility, and look forward to continued use in the future,” said Capt. Greg Rothrock, RDC commanding officer.