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Sailors assigned to Repair Locker 5 investigate the scene of a simulated fire during a general quarters drill on the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) while the ship is underway as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, Nov. 23, 2022. The first-in-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is on its inaugural deployment conducting training and operations alongside NATO Allies and partners to enhance integration for future operations and demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s commitment to a peaceful, stable and conflict-free Atlantic region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Malachi Lakey)
The horn alarm sounds, “GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS, ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! Forward and up to starboard, down and aft to port. Set material condition ‘Zebra’ throughout the ship.”
Sailors not on duty will drop everything and report to their duty station on the double. This means roll out of their racks, leave their meal uneaten on a table in the mess, or reporting to your station half naked with your clothes under your arm because you were in the shower when the alarm sounded. In this case, it was just a drill one of dozens the crew will experience on its cruise.
The extra detail about forward, up, starboard and down, aft, port, refers to the direction of travel by the scrambling crew. If your battle station is up two decks and forward of where you are when the alarm sounds you take the starboard(right) side ladders. If it’s down and aft(rearward) you take the Port(left) side ladder. This assures that everyone is only going one way on that ladder to prevent traffic jams and likely injuries. This might not be a big deal on a frigate with a crew of 250 officers and ratings, but it sure is on an aircraft carrier with 6,000 sailors aboard. One of the most common injuries aboard a ship at sea is people falling down the ladders which are made of steel and so is the deck. You move at a sort of half-run, limited by the speed of the sailor in front of you as you try to avoid bashing your head or shins on the relatively small hatch openings.
Set Condition Zebra is about the material posture of the ship with respect to its watertight integrity. Condition Zebra locks down the ship like a prison. All watertight doors are shut and the crew cannot open them for any reason, not to go eat or use the head. Opening any hatch closed under Condition Zebra requires the permission of an officer or senior NCO in charge of the compartment or passageway that hatch is in, it also gets logged and is guarded to assure it is immediately closed again. In this condition, the ship is preparing for fire or flooding and it’s taken very seriously. You can be brought up on charges for breaking Condition Zebra without permission. On large ships like aircraft carriers, armed guards(Marines) will be posted on the bridge.
It’s also a timed event, with the expectation that the crew will reach their stations within minutes(depending on the ship). It’s so important that your berthing assignment(where you sleep) will be based on its proximity to your battle station.
A warship at sea can encounter some fearsome threats, explosions, fires, toxic smoke, flooding, and ultimately drowning the crew if it sinks. A hit by a missile or torpedo can put all of these threats on the table at one time. It is entirely possible for a damage control party to be chest-deep in water fighting a fire giving off toxic smoke in a compartment full of explosive ammunition.
It’s the stuff of nightmares.
The normal human reaction to all of these things is either fight or flight. The “flight” part, running headlong for the lifeboats is easy. The “fight” part is the better part of valor takes training in order for it to be effective. The purpose of constant drilling in damage control is twofold; To make sure the crew can fight the damage and to train out of them the instinct to run away.
Not all calls to general quarters are for battle stations. The reason is that GQ can be sounded for various reasons that do not involve the threat of a shell, missile or torpedo hitting the ship. In bad weather with high seas, the ship’s company can be called to man their stations as a precaution. It can also be called when the ship is in fog for fear of a collision with another ship(Yes, even with radar). A modified GQ can be called when the ship is replenishing from another vessel close by because of the risk of collision. This is because the berthing compartments are below deck and a collision would flood them first with sailors asleep in their bunks. GQ can also be sounded if a Sailor is suspected of having fallen overboard as it’s the easiest way to take a muster and figure out which man is missing. This state of crew readiness allows the ship to be prepared for anything that might occur without knowing exactly what they might have to deal with.
Calling the crew to their battle stations involves a bit more work and effort. Every Sailor assigned to a ship has a duty station and a battle station. A Yeoman assigned to work in the Administration department works in an office with file cabinets, but his battle station might be in sick bay as a stretcher bearer or as a Damage Controlmen manning a firehose. Being called to his battle station will involve him donning his heavy fire gear, helmet, and oxygen tank.
During wartime and the constant calls to battle stations, the call might be just to “Man your stations” in order for a muster or something else to be done, rather than have the crew do all the extra work of going to battle stations which involves kitting up in various types of gear and loading ammunition into guns and ready lockers. In peacetime, it will generally be a call to battle stations just to give the crew the practice and training for the real thing. There are also very few guns to load on a modern warship as opposed to the floating arsenals that were navy ships in 1940s-50s. Securing from battle stations takes a lot longer than getting to it, because all that damage control gear has to be taken off and carefully put away.
GQ can also be modified just to call flight personnel on a carrier to their stations rather than the full complement of the entire ship. It might also be called for personnel to man weapons stations specifically like anti-aircraft missiles, anti-submarine weapons or ship-launched land attack missiles like the Tomahawk(TLAM). The ship is going to go over to a war footing to employ weapons, but you don’t need sick bay fully manned or all the damage control parties geared up and ready to fight fires or flooding, A carrier also has a GQ condition called an Alpha Strike where every flyable aircraft is armed and launched as fast as possible. This includes every anti-submarine warfare helicopter aboard as well It takes 30-45 minutes to accomplish.
Here is a pretty cool video of what CQ looked like on the carrier USS Yorktown back in WWII. You will note that a bugle call was also used over the horn alarm. On some ships there would actually be a bugler assigned to the bridge just to make these calls over the PA system. Now they use recordings of bugle calls and they are no longer used for GQ aboard ships and subs.
Now here is the modern version of a General Quarters alarm. On this call, the announcer is telling the crew to report to DC Central when condition Zebra is set.
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