NNS’ Firefighters Work to Keep Shipbuilders Safe

Published October 25, 2022

Newport News Shipbuilding’s firefighters are split into three crews that work 24-hour shifts. Photos by Lexi Whitehead and Ashley Cowan


The Newport News Shipbuilding Fire Department has jurisdiction over the shipyard’s 550 acres of waterfront and other outlying buildings. That includes thousands of shipbuilders and Navy personnel, as well as a number of aircraft carriers and submarines in various stages of construction and overhaul.

The shipyard environment can lead to unique situations for emergency responders, and that’s why it’s so important for the company to have its own fire department, according to Lt. Joe Sibert.

“It’s pretty imperative to have someone with knowledge of the ships for immediate response to any type of incident as opposed to having someone from an outside jurisdiction who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge of what’s going on,” said Sibert, an NNS firefighter for 12 years.

NNS firefighters go on regular ship tours and have frequent drills to keep up with changes as construction progresses on vessels. The firefighters – who also are EMS providers – are split into three crews that work 24-hour shifts. Between emergency calls, they stay busy with tasks that include drills, maintaining and checking equipment, completing building inspections and taking a wide range of required training.

“We stay pretty active,” said NNS Fire Chief Christopher Wilcox. “The fire station is a home away from home for the crews.”

On average, the fire department responds to about four calls per day, but the majority do not involve fire. “For every 15 medic calls we run, we probably get one fire call,” said acting Lt. Mike Symonds.

He said many incidents to which the department responds could be prevented by taking time to assess situations and follow safety rules. That includes always using proper PPE to avoid injuries and observing the 35-foot rule for hot work to avoid fires.

“The decisions you make can affect a lot of people. Slow down to see the big picture before you jump into something,” said Symonds, an NNS firefighter for nine years.

Firefighter Tim Bowens has been with the NNS Fire Department since June, after working in the Hampton Fire Division for nearly two decades. Bowens said joining the fire department was a good change of pace and he brings “a fresh set of eyes.”

At NNS, given the industrial environment, he was surprised that there are so few “serious calls,” and credits the company’s safety culture. “Management has done a wonderful job of putting safety first, not only for us, but for anybody who works in the shipyard,” Bowens said.

Fire prevention is a focus for the department during National Fire Prevention Month in October and all year. It’s important for employees to know where fire extinguishers are located in their work areas and how to use them. “The goal is for us to never have to respond to a fire call,” Wilcox said. “It’s not going to happen, but it’s the goal.”