The evolution of the fireboat

The evolution of the fireboat

The United States Fire Administration develops reports on selected, fire related subjects relating to major fires throughout USA. One of the most recent is entitled FIREBOATS THEN AND NOW…

The first recorded fireboat was built in 1765 for the Sun Fire Insurance Company in London. This was a  manual pump  in a small boat which had to be rowed by its crew to the scene of the fire.

In 1809, when New York City volunteer firefighters first mounted a crude hand-operated pump on a small boat, the era of the American fireboat was born. The fireboat would not become a mainstay of the American fire service, however, until after the Civil War when the nation moved into the industrial revolution and became a major force in international trade. The need for fireboats escalated with the development of America’s ports and waterfronts because of the significant fire risks they posed and in the 200 years since its creation, the fireboat has continued to evolve to meet the changing needs of the fire service. 

The concept for the first generation of fireboats (those built prior to 1894) was based on the typical steam-powered tugboats found in many harbours and although not specifically intended for fireboat duty, some were fitted with steam-operated pumps and monitor nozzles for auxilliary fireboat use. Even though those vessels were more efficient than hand-operated pumps, many fire service leaders were not convinced of their worth and since they often were equipped with a single boiler, it was difficult to manoeuvre and to pump water at the same time. These constraints, coupled with the costs associated with purchasing and staffing a fireboat, placed the boats out of the reach of many fire departments. Some fire departments pursued alternatives that at least reduced the cost factor of fireboats, if not all the operational limitations. They leased harbour tugs and retrofitted them with fire pumps.

In 1866, the Fire Department of New York signed an agreement with a local marine salvage company securing the service of the steam-powered tugboat John Fuller as its first fireboat on a standby basis. As more port cities experienced the devastating effect of harbour fires, some began to purchase fireboats. 

On October 8, 1871, a fire started in a barn in a residential area of Chicago near the Chicago River. The fire spread to the industrial district located along the Chicago River waterfront. As the conflagration grew in intensity it once again jumped the Chicago River, destroying hundreds of factories and commercial structures. In the wake of the fire 300 people were killed, and more than 17,000 homes were destroyed leaving 90,000 homeless, and property loss estimated at $200 million. Preceding the fire the Chicago Fire Chief’s request to purchase a fireboat had been denied, citing that commercial tugboats were a more cost effective to meet city’s firefighting needs. Although it was seriously doubtful that a fireboat could have stopped the fire, it may have been effective at reducing firebrands that spread the fire, and supplemented land-based firefighters that were experiencing difficulty maintaining and adequate and reliable water source. 

Fireboats commissioned after 1896 ushered in a new era. That generation of fireboats became the basis upon which the modern fireboat is designed. The new fireboats were equipped with multiple, high capacity boilers. These vessels were faster, and capable of delivering large volumes of water at high pressures without affecting the fireboat’s maneuverability. The new fireboats were larger than their predecessors, with some reaching lengths exceeding 125 feet. Their wide beams and deep draft made them very stable in the water. These vessels were designed primarily for one purpose: to deliver large volumes of water at high pressures during a fire. 

The internal combustion engine was first introduced into fireboats in 1918. Although more efficient than steam engines, the gasoline engine was short lived due to concerns over the explosive hazard associated with gasoline. By 1927, many of the steam and gasoline powered fireboats either had been decommissioned or were overhauled and retrofitted with the diesel engine or diesel/electric powered motors and centrifugal pumps, which were more efficient and economical to operate. 

Once a significant problem, the fires that plagued many of America’s port cities now account for only about 20 percent of the response activity of fireboats today. Mostly, this can be associated with the progress that cities and ports have made in upgrading and modernising facilities. Port improvements have been driven by requirements to accommodate the next generation of super ships, including mega container ships. Improved cargo handling and storage capabilities, as well as improvements in ship fire suppression and detection design, contribute to more fire safe ships and ports. 

Containerised cargo makes it possible to quickly load and off-load ships, and to transfer cargo containers to various modes of ground transportation for movement to inland destinations across the country. Break-bulk cargo no longer sits on wooden piers or wharves, or in unprotected warehouses awaiting transport, so the risk of fire is substantially reduced. And the new generation of ships being designed and constructed today are inherently safer than the ships of the past. 

The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Treaty, and the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) are organisations that establish and administer standards governing the fabrication and safety of vessels. SOLAS is regarded as the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant vessels. The organisation’s primary objective is to specify minimum standards for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships, compatible with their safety. These standards include structural fire protection for ships, fire suppression, and detection systems, as well as the International Code for Fire Safety Systems (FSS code) and the Fire Test Procedures Code adopted in 2001. 

Although port modernisation projects have reduced the frequency of fires, port improvements have at the same time created new challenges and service demands for fire departments. Many cities and port authorities have undertaken ambitious waterfront development projects in conjunction with port upgrades, which have transformed waterfront property into multi-use, high-density properties. These development projects often consist of small marinas generally used by recreational boats and often incorporate high-rise office and commercial businesses such as hotels and shopping districts. These kinds of waterfront developments appeal to many people and can attract thousands of visitors annually, thus creating a life safety concern for fire and rescue personnel. 

Waterfront emergencies, and fires in particular, can be a challenge for the best fire departments. Fires in such areas can present significant logistical and tactical problems for land-based fire units because of poor or limited access. Fire personnel may be forced to carry equipment and/or stretch hose lines long distances to attack a fire. A fireboat can give the fire chief a tactical advantage in such situations because in many cases fireboats have unfettered access to waterfront structures that allows them to quickly manoeuvre into position and commence firefighting and/or support operations. 

A vessel’s performance and operational characteristics are greatly influenced by its design. The push to improve fireboat performance and operational capabilities dates back as early as the 1970s. In 1973, the US Maritime Administration published a report outlining basic fireboat specification and capabilities, which parallels many of today’s standards published by NFPA governing marine firefighting vessels. The report called for fireboats to meet certain requirements including the following: 

  • capable of being operated by a two-person crew
  • able to perform in rough seas with up to six foot waves
  • have a dash speed of at least 30 knots; have a shallow draft and low wake
  • be capable of pumping 5,500 GPM for at least 8 hours
  • be equipped with multiple firefighting monitors
  • demonstrate high manoeuvrability

Many fire departments are transitioning from the larger traditional fireboat design to smaller, faster, and more versatile craft designed and configured for a multiplicity of operational roles. For decades, most fireboats relied on a single power source (engine) to provide propulsion and water delivery. If the only engine were to fail, the boat and crew could be in serious jeopardy especially if operating close to a large fire. Improvements in propulsion and pump technology have enabled boat designers to incorporate independent pumping and propulsion systems into new fireboat designs. Most fireboats are now capable of delivering water without sacrificing manoeuvring capabilities. 

Routine fireboat duties now encompass many different kinds of emergency and non-emergency operational scenarios that just a few short years ago would have been considered outside of the scope of traditional fireboat operations. The new multi-purpose craft is usually smaller with a shallower draft and capable of quickly covering long distances in as little as half the time it would take a larger fireboat. The speed of multi-purpose craft allows them to quickly reach an incident and begin mitigation efforts, long before many of the older fireboats could have arrived at the scene. 

Ports typically are a major location for hazardous materials, which are present on vessels in transit, at on-site manufacturing sites, and in bulk storage facilities at the port. Massive ships that import and export bulk shipments of hazardous cargoes are another concern. The increase of containerised cargo creates a parallel increase in the percentage of containers having some kind of hazardous material. Hazardous materials are not always properly manifested when shipped and could pose a significant danger for unsuspecting fire suppression personnel. It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all containers hold some of hazardous material. 

Multi-purpose craft can play a critical role in lessoning the environmental impact of marine hazardous materials. Fire departments and port authorities that operate fireboats equip their boats with bayonet nozzles (for piercing dense stacks of containerised cargo to extinguish fires), containment booms, foam, skimmers, absorbents, and other equipment. This equipment is used to mitigate fires and environmental emergencies, such as oil spills and the release of other hazardous substances into ports and waterways. 

After experiencing several major wharf and pier fires at the Port of Los Angeles, the LA Fire Department established a highly specialised and successful SCUBA diving team to conduct firefighting operations from positions just under the surface. Flotation devices have been developed as platforms to support and allow divers to manoeuvre and operate hoses and nozzles in the water. Currently, divers operate from three of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s five fireboats. 

Out of necessity, some fire departments have developed alternative methods for providing some level of port fire protection. This was the case for the Port of Montreal, Canada which found an innovative solution in a fire barge which provided the fire department with an effective firefighting platform at a fraction of the cost of a new fireboat. Some minor modifications were made to a barge to enable fire apparatus to be loaded and unloaded. The 135’ x 35’ barge has a payload capacity of 800 tons, well in access of anything the fire department might require. The standard complement of apparatus transported on the barge includes one 2000-GPM pumper, one 1050-GPM pumper, one 135’ aerial ladder, one 90’ elevating platform, and a command unit. In the event of a call, apparatus from the closest station respond to the barge; at the same time a tug-boat is dispatched and ties up to the barge to transport it to the fire. 

Writing the specifications for a fireboat requires extensive research and planning. The propulsion and pumping systems and the wide variety of tools and equipment carried on these vessels can vary depending on the specific class of fireboat. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1925, Standards for Marine Firefighting Vessels, establishes minimum requirements for marine firefighting vessels and this standard applies to the construction of new vessels and conversion of existing vessels used for marine firefighting, as well as the maintenance and testing of fireboats.