The Marine Firefighting Institute

Newsletter # 9

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What Else Can Fireboats Do?

By Tom Guldner


We all know that large Fireboats are used to fight fires aboard ships. Their massive pumping capacities can be used to extinguish even the largest fires. Many of these fires are so severe that the firefighting forces are unable to even board the vessel for extinguishment. They will fight this fire from the safety of the deck of a fireboat (if they have one.) This approach must be taken until the fire can be "knocked down" enough to allow firefighters to initiate an attack onboard the vessel. Add the foam carrying capability in each fireboat and you have the equivalent of 20 land-based pumpers. However, what else are these giant water going pumpers of the sea good for?

Aside from the most visible function of fireboats providing spectacular water displays for arriving and departing ships, these vessels also provide rescue capabilities to ships, boats, planes, and people in distress on the water. Many times these boats respond to the scene and lower their smaller rescue craft to assist a swimmer in trouble or someone who has attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge into the water.

In colder climates these 200-300 ton steal hulled vessels have become ice breakers to rescue and free vessels that have become trapped by an ice flow. Although not originally designed for this function their heavy steel hulls have been able to withstand the crushing force of the four inch, and thicker, ice that accumulates in our northern climates in the winter. The photo on the right shows the Fireboat Governor Alfred Smith breaking through the ice which filled the Brooklyn navy yard. Without these steel hulled fireboats, there would be no marine response when the ice becomes thick. The thin, aluminum hulls of other boats could be breached by the jagged edges of some of these major ice flows.

Most large Fireboats carry an array of special tools that are not used often, but when the need arises they are indispensable. The list may include. -Air powered saws, drills, and pavement cutters for opening up piers and concrete roofs. -Meters and measuring devices for checking available oxygen, the presence of gas, and explosive and toxic environments. -Large quantities of firefighting foam and foam nozzles. -Thousands of feet of all sizes of hose. -Large volume distributors for attacking under pier and ship hold fires (see photo left). -Hurst tools and compression cutters. -Cutting torches (oxygen acetylene and exothermic). -Ladders of every type and size. Radiological monitoring equipment. -Confined space and high angle rescue tools and equipment. -Medical equipment and supplies of at least the first responder size. This is all in addition to the complement of regular tools like partner saws, masks and spare bottles (one hour preferred). Some newer boats may even have a cylinder recharging system In short, a fireboat should be equipped to handle almost anything.

At one incident a New York City Fireboat showed other talents when it responded to the scene of a helicopter which had crashed into the water and was about to sink. The helicopter was secured to the hull of the fireboat and was held at the surface. At another incident, a small sea plane was unable to take off and was taking on water. A fireboat took the plane in tow and brought it back to the fireboat station. There, the water was pumped out, and the pilot was able to make arraignments to get his plane home the following day. Photo on left shows that seaplane tied up at the fireboat dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Note the New York skyline in the background. That's the "Twin Towers" of The World Trade Center off in the distance prior to the terrorist attack. That was another operation where Fireboats received world wide attention for their non traditional but crucial actions on September 11, 2001 and the days that followed.

The recent attack on the United States at the World Trade Center in New York City is a excellent example of a Fireboat's capability to supply water to land-based units as well as to structures. They were also invaluable as a means of evacuation at this operation. After the collapse of the towers, many of the water mains in the surrounding area were knocked out. There were many large scale fires in hi-rise buildings that had to be extinguished to enable those buildings to be searched for victims and for the the main rescue effort to progress on the collapsed towers. One photo of that day showed a firefighter standing near a burning auto before the fireboats started pumping. The hose stream in his hand only went about two feet out from the nozzle. In the background stood a high-rise hotel with more than ten floors involved in fire. Water was needed disparately and only a fireboat could supply it.

The first fireboat on the scene was the Fireboat John McKean of Marine Company 1. It responded to the initial call and was on the scene before the towers collapsed. Many civilians were trapped in the area south of the collapsed towers. They were encrusted with dust and walking or running blindly toward the water. These people were frightened and dazed and did not know if a further attack was coming. When they reached the bulkhead hundreds of these desperate people jumped onto the deck of the Fireboat McKean (Marine 1) which then cast off and deposited its cargo of injured and dazed victims to a safe location in New Jersey. After unloading across the Hudson River, the McKean returned to the scene and started pumping water. They were joined by the FDNYs other two Fireboats, the Firefighter (Marine 9) and the small fireboat the Smoke II (Marine 6 spare boat). The Marine 6 "first line" boat, the Kevin C. Kane, was undergoing repairs in Brooklyn when the first plane hit the tower. The crew of the Kane quickly placed their boat back in service and responded to the scene. This boat made several trips evacuating people from lower Manhattan. Ironically, personnel from the Marine division who were working on the Smoke II, which was now designated Marine 7, were involved in the rescue of Captain Al Fuentes, the Acting Chief of the Marine Division. He had been trapped and seriously injured in the collapse of the second tower. Captain Fuentes was evacuated to a triage center in Liberty State Park. Thankfully, he is now recovering from his injuries and is expected to make a full recovery.

Another boat joined, or rather rejoined, the fleet of fireboats that day. The Fireboat John J. Harvey had been retired and sold to a group of dedicated marine enthusiasts who spent their own time and money refurbishing the "old girl". (Photo above right shows civilians and Firefighters jumping aboard the Harvey several days later when the fear of another collapse caused the order to evacuate again. Photo by Huntley Gill.). When the radio reports of the attack were received, the civilian crew fired up the engines and responded to the scene. Over the course of the next 3-days, three large fireboats would pump for twenty four hours a day to supply almost 60,000 gallons of water per minute. (See photo on left of the Fireboat Firefighter supplying numerous large diameter supply lines. Photo by Huntley Gill) Their water supplied pumpers in relay, manifolds, and building standpipes. Without the pumping capabilities of these old boats the fires in the surrounding hi-rise building as well as the dozens of cars and emergency vehicles which were burning could not have been attacked. After the third day the retired Fireboat Harvey and her crew of truly dedicated civilians was released with the thanks of a grateful FDNY. The two other active Fireboats continued to pump for several days. Throughout the pumping operations, the fireboats were resupplied and refueled by the hard working crew of the Army Corps of Engineers vessel "Hayward". (See photo right by Huntley Gill, of the Harvey being supplied by Army Corps. boat ). During the days of pumping the dedicated engineering crew for the fireboats had to perform maintenance and emergency repairs as the engines and pumps were racing at full capacity. Bearings were overheating so bad that they had to be constantly "iced down" to keep them from burning up! The crews of the boats split their time between maintaining the boats crucial pumping and helping to dig in the rescue efforts.

Many other recent disasters have caused the water supply to a portion of a city to be destroyed. The earthquake and fire in California, that we all watched during the World Series baseball game a few years ago, was another good example. The fire mains were destroyed and fires raged uncontrolled in the Marina district of this city. Firefighters had to stand and watch as the fires spread and their fire hoses remained dry. This lasted until the arrival of the fireboat. Water was pumped from the bay by that city's Fireboat to supply the firefighting forces. Once again a waterfront city was saved by a fireboat.

If your city is located on the water then your Fire Department should have a fireboat. If your Fire Department does have Fireboats, then these should be adequately maintained and fully manned by a competent, full time, marine crew. History has proven that these Fireboats are needed, therefor, let's learn from history because "Those who cannot remember the mistakes of the past, are condemned to repeat those same mistakes". These boats may not be used very often but when they are needed they are indispensable. On September 11, 2001 many things in our lives and in our world changed. I hope that one of those changes involve the knowledge that Fireboats are an vital part of any port city's Fire Department disaster planning.

The Port of Boston was closed to LNG tankers for several days following the terrorist attacks of September 11. It was feared that an attack on one of these vessels within the harbor would be too devastating to allow the vessels access. Without fireboats how will your port respond to a terrorist act on a vessel near your shores?

May God bless those who were lost in the attack on our country and may He comfort their families. May He also give us all the courage to handle the uncertain months and years ahead and protect our armed forces.

Stay safe,

Tom Guldner

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Previous Newsletters:

Newsletter # 1 "Marine Firefighting Training, Who needs it!"

Newsletter # 2 "Shipboard Basics"

Newsletter # 3 "Straight Stream Vs Fog Stream"

Newsletter #4 "Immigrants in Shipping Containers"

Newsletter #5 "Hazards of Refrigeration in the Shipping Industry"

Newsletter #6 "Stability at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #7 "2 in 2 out at Shipboard Fires"

Newsletter #8 "What Happened to the Air?"