Written by Chief Petty Officer John Masson
A ship operating away from home can seem like its own tiny, self-contained universe. There’s no calling a paramedic, a police officer, or a plumber when something goes wrong.
That’s why it’s a good thing the Coast Guard has people like Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas Basso, a damage controlman, aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf (WMSL 750). When everyday issues arise, such as a door that won’t close properly or a sink that won’t drain, it’s people like Basso who ride to the rescue.
Basso’s job actually requires much more, of course. If a ship like Bertholf suffers serious damage as a result of an accident, the elements, or an attack by an adversary, people like Basso are at the forefront of the all-hands effort to control the damage and save the ship. With Bertholf currently conducting operations in the Western Pacific Ocean, the ship’s ability to cope with potentially serious damage is more important than ever.
Basso, who is from Quakertown, Pennsylvania, enjoys all that responsibility – although he admits that early on, it was a bit intimidating.
“I’d been wanting to do it since I joined the Coast Guard,” Basso says of becoming a damage controlman. He enlisted 3 1/2 years ago, served previously on U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer, and has acquired enough seasoning since then to feel confident when he welcomes new personnel, often straight out of basic training, to his ship.
“One of the best parts of my job is teaching newly reported personnel about shipboard firefighting and damage control,” he says. “It’s their first impression of the Coast Guard, and I try to help build a good foundation for them.”
His supervisor, Chief Petty Officer Scott Hall, says Basso is a great choice to provide that foundation.
“I’d love to have several Bassos in my shop,” says Hall, who also is a damage controlman. His list of positive traits on Basso is endless. “He’s super humble, works hard, and he’s all about teamwork.”
Furthermore, Hall adds, Basso’s epic moustache is the one by which all others aboard Bertholf are measured.
The damage controlman “rating,” or Coast Guard enlisted job classification, includes elements of a variety of skilled trades, including welding, plumbing, carpentry, and firefighting. One of the most important elements, though, may be creativity.
Sometimes it’s the small victories that make the biggest impression. One of his shop’s memorable fixes came when the flush button failed on one of the ship’s vacuum-powered toilets. The ship didn’t have a part to replace the failed button, but it turns out there’s more than one way to make the small amount of suction needed to trigger the toilet’s mechanism. A syringe was pressed into service to create the vacuum, and soon enough the incommodious commode was back in business.
Basso is also easy to spot when the ship is launching or landing its embarked helicopter. He’ll be one of the two people who look like a cross between the Tin Man and a visitor from outer space, once they’re dressed out in the shiny, silver, fire-resistant suit more formally known as a firefighting ensemble.
Fires at sea have been the stuff of sailors’ nightmares since ships were built with timber, canvas, and tar-soaked lines, and it’s no different today. If there’s fire on the flight deck during flight operations or refueling, it’s Basso’s job to extract members of the flight crew from the fire, then lead efforts to put it out. If fire breaks out elsewhere on the ship, Basso has a leading role on a “flying squad” of first responders whose goal is to extinguish the blaze and contain the damage before calling for backup on the remainder of the crew, all of whom have basic firefighting training – often provided by Basso himself.
Training and experience play a large role in helping control emergencies at sea. But so does courage. With other members of his rating, Basso knows his duties in a life-threatening shipboard emergency could demand, literally, everything he has.
“As a shop we understand what our responsibility is,” Basso says. “We know what we have to do.”