“Gas Risk Remains for Navy Boats” – A Response from the Chief of the Navy

I write in regard to an article in today’s Australian Newspaper (“gas risk remains for Navy boats”) by Michael McKenna. The article is based on a quote from an anonymous sailor, that a member was gassed on board an Armidale Class Patrol Boat in 2009 in an incident similar to a tragedy which injured four crew members 3 years earlier. I have asked Navy’s Patrol Boat Group Headquarters to thoroughly check their files. There is no record of this occurring.

For those who have not been aboard an Armidale, the austere accommodation compartment is designed to house any unexpected overflow of people. When not in use, the space is rarely used and usually sealed off. Therefore, the area is constantly monitored for any trace of toxic gas. Alarms sound at the slightest hint that levels of gas have risen to potentially dangerous levels, even if the amount of gas detected is below the amount toxic to humans. Those alarms have detected carbon monoxide emissions 8 times in the past 12 months and on each occasion the space was empty and no one was injured. No Hydrogen Sulphide (the gas involved in the tragedy in Nuship Maitland in 2006) has been detected. The recent introduction of better exhaust systems is significantly reducing the amount of carbon monoxide being ingested into the boats’ ventilation systems. Their sewage treatment systems are also being modified. Those improvements will continue across our patrol boat fleet.

The most recent incident involving Hydrogen Sulphide occurred in 2008. A small number of people at the HMAS CoonawarraNavy base in Darwin were slightly affected when the gas escaped from a sewage treatment plant as a patrol boat was undocking. This was the result of operator error and had nothing to do with the austere accommodation or the Armidales themselves.

Navy has never hidden the fact that like any new asset, the Armidales had some teething problems. But I can only repeat that the Armidale Class Patrol Boats are a safe, capable and reliable asset. I visited several of our 14 strong fleet just weeks ago and came away impressed with not only their capability but the ability and professionalism of those who crew them.

If Navy personnel of any rank still have concerns about the Armidales, I urge them to communicate this through their chain of command. New Generation Navy Signature Behaviours must apply and I will not tolerate measures or procedures which place our people in unnecessary danger.

However, the facts speak for themselves. I hope that any future reporting of this issue will focus more on the truth and less on hear-say.

Vice Admiral Russ Crane
Chief of Navy
2 January 2010