USS FitzgeraldThe news this week reported that the captain, executive officer and the senior enlisted sailor were removed from their positions aboard the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) which suffered a collision with a civilian ship on June 17, 2017.  It’s not unusual for the captain and senior personnel to be relieved of duties following a collision or accident aboard a navy ship – in fact, it’s expected.

In discussing the removals, I was asked if it’s normal for someone other than the captain to be relieved – my answer was, yes, if they borne any responsibility for the training or performance of the people actually involved in the accident.  While the captain is responsible for everything aboard ship, the executive officer and the senior enlisted sailor are responsible for training and conduct of the crew.

Now the captain was in his cabin when the collision took place.  There was an officer on the bridge of the ship, called the Officer of the Deck (OOD), who had the authority to direct the ship per the captain’s orders.  There are standing orders – orders that are general in nature and don’t change much – and there are specific orders that apply to that particular watch which guide the OOD in what should be done.  The OOD has responsibility of carrying out the orders and taking actions that ensure the safety of the ship and successful execution of its mission.

I expect that the OOD will also receive punishment because there is no way that the collision should have happened – someone lost situational awareness and allowed the civilian ship to get too close. And one of the paramount duties of the OOD is to have situational awareness.

But while the OOD has the responsibility and authority to direct the ship, that doesn’t relieve the captain of his responsibility for the safe operation of his ship.  Yes, the captain delegated his authority to the OOD, and with that authority came the responsibility to exercise it appropriately.  But the captain couldn’t delegate his responsibility – he still had it.

This is bound up in law and Naval Regulations as well as tradition going back hundreds, even thousands of years, on the seas.  It’s summed up in the phase, “The Captain is responsible for the ship.”  No exceptions, no excuses.  It’s harsh but experience tells us that it’s a requirement at sea.

I was taught this principle in my youth and it was hammered in during my career in the US Navy.  Which is why I have a hard time excusing those in public or private life that try to shift blame when something goes wrong.  “I told them ….” Really doesn’t eliminate the fact that you don’t delegate responsibility just by delegating authority.  There needs to be a thoughtful delegating of authority – ensuring that the resources, time, money, personnel, and knowledge are available to successfully complete the task.  And with everything perfect, you still have the responsibility – no matter what the result.

My heart goes out to those injured, the families of those killed and all the survivors.  The injured and families everyone will think about, but the survivors are and will suffer as well.  Survivor’s guilt is a real burden – in the years to come there will be countless nights of playing the events over and over in their heads – what could they have done differently to save those lost and injured or to avoid the whole event entirely?

It’s a question those in authority should ask themselves every day to avoid those countless night.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.