Wednesday, October 25 2023
The ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) support the operations of the Royal Navy (RN) around the world in all conditions,  and this civilian service has catalysed exchange of learning about safety at sea between the RN and the Merchant Navy (MN). Prior to the 1970s, RFA safety training was rudimentary and remote from that of the RN, recalls Commodore David Squire, who served in the RFA from 1963 to 1999, retiring as its Chief Executive.  He remembers weekly fire and boat drills satirically nicknamed "Board of Trade Sports".
However, in the mid-1970s the RFA recognised the need for greater alignment with RN procedures. RFA ships started undertaking Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) at Portland, which introduced more demanding and realistic firefighting training afloat. On RFA vessels, the manning and operation of flight deck fire risk management and firefighting, requiring specialist processes, is undertaken by a permanently embarked RN contingent. The overall ship fire and safety management procedures come under civilian safety rules and regulations, and the overall command of the (civilian) ship’s captain. 
Despite the improvements of the 1970s, Squire emphasised that the 1982 Falklands Conflict was a real "wake-up call" for the RFA.  The RFA provided the supply line that enabled the naval task force to regain control of the Falklands in 1982. RFA ships were issued with RN equipment for that conflict, as recorded by Petty Officer Peter Robinson who served on RFA Tidespring in the Falklands, quoted in Geoff Puddefoot’s history of the RFA in the Falklands:
"Every member of the crew was issued with lifejacket, survival suit, gas mask and anti-flash gear, which we had to carry at ALL times …it was never allowed to be out of reach …Fire and emergency drills were practiced frequently ...". 
However, Commodore R C Thornton, RFA, remarks in the foreword to Puddefoot’s book that: "The events of 1982 triggered many questions about our equipment, training, capability and status…".  Puddefoot notes that many RFA ratings had been taken from the Merchant Navy Pool, “often with little or no specialist RFA training”. 
He concludes "More important than good equipment, crew training is now a major priority, with a wide variety of courses covering both the everyday and specialist activities of the RFA." 
Photograph of RFA Sir Galahad departing from Marchwood in 1979. Later sunk by air attack in the Falklands War.
Philip Roberts, captain of the landing ship logistics RFA Sir Galahad which was burnt out and abandoned in the Falklands in 1982, recounted in a ‘Legasee’ oral history record how deficiencies in RFA firefighting and communications equipment were exposed by that experience, leading to consequent increase in training of RFA personnel with the RN at sea and at shore establishments.  All interviewees for this project commented on how both the military and civilian branches have changed greatly since 1982 with much greater integration of safety doctrine and operational training between RN and RFA, with that cross-learning also delivering benefits for the MN.
Squire confirms that safety and survival training was taken more seriously in the RFA after 1982, with increased amount of FOST with the RN and more firefighting and Damage Control training at specialist units within RN shore establishments at Portsmouth and Plymouth -"doing it for real" with emphasis on "training the team".  James Stride recalls FOST training in the 1990s having a “very clear and present awareness” of lessons learnt in the Falklands but notes that personal transferable experience cannot easily be replaced as veterans retire. 
Squire remarks that safety culture in the RFA has become even more closely aligned with the RN in recent years; the RN Phoenix firefighting training facility at the Nuclear Biological and Chemical Defence School (NBCD) at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth has since 1996 provided training to RFA as well as RN personnel.  Consequently, Phoenix has acquired accreditation from the UK civilian maritime authorities and is thus able to train Merchant Navy seafarers and RN personnel to equivalent advanced firefighting standards. 
David Carter explains the value of this civilian accreditation of RN training to enable equivalence of RN and merchant seafarer qualifications: hitherto, separate systems in the MN and the RN for training and assessing competence of seafarers, particularly at deck officer level, had created a barrier to transferability of sea service between the RN and MN that hampered rather than helped the case for investment in skills development and had a negative effect on the overall UK maritime industry. 
The RN is now able to deliver civilian certificates of competency alongside RN qualifications to provide direct transferability of competences between RN and MN at all ranks, with consequent benefits to career mobility, recruitment, and retention in the RN - as well as reinforcement to the MN. 
The next blog post in this series summarises the historical context of international conventions and regulations governing safety at sea, and how those have been amended following major maritime disasters.