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When the call to General Quarters (GQ) is announced, the crew prepares the ship to join battle. Off-duty or sleeping crewmembers report to their stations and prepare for action, watertight doors and fireproof doors between bulkheads are shut and security is increased around sensitive areas, such as the bridge and engineering rooms.
While the term 'General Quarters' is used in the navies such as the surface fleet of the United States Navy, other navies, such as the Royal Navy use the term 'Action Stations'. In French, the term is Aux postes de combat ("to combat stations"), and was formerly branle-bas de combat, literally meaning that sleeping hammocks should be cleared off the gun deck, rolled, and stowed on the upper deck of the ship as protection against musket fire. The German Navy uses the term "Gefechtsstationen", meaning literally "combat stations". In Spanish the expression is "Zafarrancho de combate" (literally, "prepare stations to combat"). The Dutch Koninklijke Marine uses "Gevechtswacht op post" ("Combatants to stations"). The submarine fleet of the United States Navy uses the term "Battlestations" vice "General Quarters"
Call to General Quarters
In modern navies, a "call to General Quarters" is made over the ship's intercom system. It is a time to pass news and information from higher ranking sailors to lower ranking ones.
Beat to quarters
Historically, a drum pattern called the "beat to quarters" was played to signal the crew. The original ship's bell signal for Beating to Quarters was a rapidly rung bell 5 times, at 5 second repeats. Today, the GQ alarm is a rapidly repeating electronic klaxon bell rung in the same or a similar manner. There are different klaxon signals for different conditions. For example, a chemical-warfare signal (requiring the crew to don respirators) is a high-pitched solid whistle in the United States Navy, and a klaxon indicates combat stations, battle ensuing. The original "Beat to Quarters" drum signal was a three-second drum roll with two beats in between the rolls, i.e., tap tap roll tap tap roll, etc.
Upon signal, crew cleared the main gun deck(s) by taking all extraneous gear and equipment and stowing it down in the hold. All the cannons were primed with gunpowder and loaded with the proper type of ammunition (roundshot, chainshot, barshot, canister shot/caseshot, or grapeshot), depending on the situation at hand as determined by the ranking officer. It was common during times of war for all ships to "beat to quarters" shortly before dawn, as enemies might be sighted during sunrise. Drum beats were replaced in the 20th century by klaxons or bells.
General Quarters, or Beating to Quarters, is called whenever the ship or crew may face danger beyond what is necessarily expected of them during life at sea (but the call may also be sounded when the ship is anchored, in harbor and/or tied to a dock). Quarters are called during storms, battles, and random sightings in the fog, because the general philosophy is that of preparedness. If a ship is to face the danger of the elements and should happen upon an enemy, it is much better to be prepared.
All crew members are assigned their general quarters upon being accepted aboard even a modern naval vessel, with emphasis on where to go and what to do when the call is sounded (see below). When GQ is called, all crewmembers must drop what they are doing, stow any non-battle related gear and/or non-emergency action gear and report to their general-quarters station. Then a roll is called and duties are assigned according to the situation requiring the GQ alarm. It is of utmost importance that each crewmember not only report immediately to their general quarters/battle station assignment, but that no one restrict the movement of any other crew member who is in the process of doing the same. The senior person at each location aboard the ship must ascertain who is present and who is not as a way to account for casualties (wounded, missing or dead crewmembers, men overboard, etc.). This is especially important in view of sealing off certain portions of the ship to prevent water damage, fire, smoke, enemy bombardment, etc., because a crewmember might be sealed in a part of the ship that prevents him from reporting to his station. The ships' overall effectiveness and response time in battle or an emergency depends not only on GQ being sounded, but immediate adherence to it, accountability of personnel, and assignment of tasks based on available personnel at hand. The ship's mission must still be carried out in the event of missing personnel at any particular battle station, and redistribution of personnel, equipment, weapons and/or munitions is part of the decision-making process of the senior crewmen in each station, combined with collective decisions throughout the ship. Also, in the event that intruders are aboard the ship and attempt to intermix with the crew, roll-call and face-recognition is useful in weeding them out.
While voice communication is the first choice in transmitting orders, the noise and confusion of battle or an emergency situation may restrict its use and effectiveness. Modern-day ships have radio, electronic, light systems, telephone and computer-based technology that greatly enhance communication, but there is also the possibility that any or all of them could be damaged, disabled, out of commission, unavailable or blocked due to the exact battle condition or emergency at hand. Likewise, noise, enemy jamming, enemy interference, electronic pulses emitted by certain types of munitions, and other liabilities hamper communication. Darkness, heavy smoke, fire and lack of line-of-sight prevent it, but in situations of clear or adequate visibility, and when crewmembers can see each other, hand signals are effective, and flashlights are options, too. Whistles and Morse code (tapping) are other audible options.
Coordination with other friendly ships in the immediate vicinity, friendly aircraft in the immediate vicinity, with higher command, and with shore-based units must be done, especially in the event of enemy attack or a devastating storm at sea. When operationally prudent, the ship's location at the start of GQ should be transmitted to higher headquarters, other friendly ships and aircraft, in the event that communication or visual contact is lost.
Only a few of the ship's normal operations continue unabated during GQ, and life aboard ship during that time can be restricted. For instance, in the event of a chemical attack or fear thereof, the crew might have to wear respirators or other breathing apparatus during GQ, making movement and exertion more difficult than normal. If sinking is imminent, life jackets and survival kits are the appropriate attire, also making movement and exertion more difficult than normal. Where enemy fire is the threat, helmets and/or anti-flak jackets augment the normal uniform, and fire-fighting teams and equipment are dispersed as necessary. Crewmembers who were off-duty when GQ was sounded have been roused from their sleeping quarters, food service and water supply is usually suspended, including water for cooking, showers and flushing toilets. In some instances, even drinking water is unavailable. Other life-support systems, such as air-circulation and air conditioning, might be scaled back or suspended completely to save energy and/or fuel for combat systems or emergency-response systems. No person may enter a battle station unless they are assigned there, so as not to interfere with the crewmembers. Additionally, during GQ, no watertight hatch, fireproof hatch or any other secured entry-point may be opened without express permission from the senior crewman responsible for that area or from the ship's captain/bridge. Because of that, normal movement throughout the ship is usually not allowed at all, and when it is allowed, there must be a valid reason and/or purpose for such movement.
Enginemen, hull technicians, boiler technicians and nuclear-reactor units (where applicable) report to their workspaces. Crewmembers who are assigned to gun positions, missile systems, ammunition issue points and other weapons-related functions report directly to their posts. Command center, combat center, pilot house and communications personnel report to the bridge or other type locations from which they perform their duties. Crewmembers assigned to shipboard aviation units or duties report to either the flight deck, the hangar deck, fueling stations, observation posts, aviation workshops, etc. Pilots and flight crews report to their aircraft, if the expectation is launch them. Medical personnel report to hospital, clinic or triage spaces. Damage-control teams report to either their workshops or points of vulnerability throughout the ship. All non-essential personnel, such as those having no particular assigned battle station or duties during GQ, are expected to remain out of the way of crewmembers actively involved in the response. Those people might include passengers, media personnel, non-crew technicians, and in certain ships, embarked troops such as amphibious landing units (marines, for example). The best place for non-essential personnel to stay out of the way is in their sleeping quarters, which are usually not part of active response areas.
Certain lighting, especially outer lights that can give away the ship's position, speed, distance, displacement (tonnage), class/type or silhouette, are turned off or subdued, and inner lighting systems are diminished to only those absolutely necessary for movement within the ship's skin. Red lights come on automatically to alert any and all personnel that GQ is in effect, and in many parts of the ship, the red lighting completely replaces normal lighting.
A ship's crew remains under General Quarters indefinitely until the command "Stand Down From General Quarters" or "All Clear" is sounded, which may be as little as several minutes. The ship's captain, after receiving information from department heads, has the authority to call a stand-down from GQ. In the event that the actual captain has become incapacitated to the point of being unable to command, the second-in-command becomes the captain, and that authority switches hands also. When the intercom is intact, it is used to announce stand-down, but other systems, including word-of-mouth, may be used also. It is important to note that caution must be applied to ensure that the order to stand down is authentic, and not stemming from miscommunication or enemy subterfuge.
Under normal circumstances, there is no set time-period that General Quarters will remain in effect; it is dependent upon the reason that it was called in the first place, and whether or not that reason still threatens the ship and its crew. The entire ship may be called to stand down from general quarters all at one time, or certain sections/units/duties may be told to remain at GQ, such as engine systems, steam plants, boilers, weapons, medical, aviation, command center or watch stations.
Due to having a large percentage of the crew (sometimes 100%) at readiness and the suspension of life-support systems as mentioned above, it is in the interest of the ship and the crew to balance the need for GQ against the judgement for calling it off. While a ship and its crew are at GQ, its readiness is enhanced, but the longer they remain at GQ while no immediate action takes place from the threat, stress sets in and increases as time goes by. Fewer crewmembers are available to relieve posts because the majority of the crew is already on duty. Eating, sleeping, showering and toilet-use have been cut back severely, which cannot continue forever. When making the decision to release all or part of the crew from GQ, the mission, safety, security and sanctity of the ship is utmost, and takes precedence over human comforts.
Once "Stand Down From General Quarters" or "All Clear" is sounded, it is usually accompanied by an announcement of which duty section(s) will remain on station for normal tasks and duties.
- Example: "Secure from General Quarters, Secure from General Quarters! All hands are to stand down from General Quarters, return to normal duties and/or receive their next orders from their Department Heads. The time on deck is fifteen twenty-three; on deck, Section Four. All Department Heads will muster with the Captain on the aft quarterdeck at fifteen forty-five."
If damage is probable, suspected, unknown or has occurred, damage-control parties are dispatched to either assess it or repair it. Life-support systems that were suspended or cut back are restored, aircraft, weapons, munitions, and other equipment are all restocked and prepared for future use. Casualties are attended to and their duties redistributed among able-bodied crewmembers. Coordination with other friendly ships in the immediate vicinity, friendly aircraft in the immediate vicinity, with higher command, and with shore-based units must be done again, to alert them to the ship's status. When operationally prudent, the ship's location at the end of GQ should be transmitted to higher headquarters, other friendly ships and aircraft. Usually, if one ship in close proximity to other friendly ships stands down from to GQ, all of the others may do so also, Coordination is made with other friendly vessels in the area to ensure rescue/recovery of any men overboard, to include friendlies, enemies, civilians, non-combatants, etc.
After-Action Reports, Battle-Damage Assessments (determining what damage, if any, has been inflicted upon the enemy), Damage-Control Reports (damage to one's own vessel) and many others are generated as soon as possible to inform the captain of the ship's performance during CQ and its worthiness/preparedness for normal operations and future action.
In some situations, instead of sounding "Stand Down From General Quarters" or "All Clear", a more stringent call may be sounded, based on a worsening of the situation. Examples are, "Abandon Ship", or "Man the Lifeboats".
Preparing a crew (and passengers or embarked troops) for GQ is just as important as carrying out a real one, and is paramount in carrying it out successfully. It cannot be left to the imagination that anyone will know what to do, where to go, what not to do or where not to go upon hearing the klaxon sound for GQ, nor is there any such thing as "too much" preparedness. The very nature of any emergency dictates that it can happen any time, any place and with anyone present or in charge. As such, numerous drills are a normal part of a crew's life, and often become monotonous, but are still necessary. Timing for having the ship "at" GQ is essential, from the moment it's sounded until the captain is informed that the ship is secure. If one crewmember is unaccounted for at the assigned battle station, that department head cannot yet report 'all hands present and accounted for', thereby rendering the entire ship 'not at' GQ. During a drill, a certain time period is pre-arranged wherein missing personnel are considered officially unaccounted for, and the department head reports readiness with X number of persons missing, reason unknown. In a real-life GQ situation, however, that would be a luxury, and the urgency to secure the ship and have it ready for action creates a different set of circumstances. During drills, certain personnel may be purposely detained from reaching their stations and/or certain GQ-essential systems are purposefully shut down to test the crew's ability to work around such difficulties. Training drills must be run at various times of day and night, various days of the week, and introduce various scenarios that mirror any potential threat. Following each drill, the leadership is responsible to analyze response-time, readiness factors, suitability of the crew under stress, etc., and continually perfect any discrepancies. It is equally important to communicate to the crew how well they have done in the areas where they excelled, without causing false confidence.