By Alan M. Petrillo
Many fire departments around the country have a need for small- or medium-sized fire boats, rescue boats, or a combination of the two to deal with emergencies on rivers, bays, lakes, or other bodies of water in their protection districts.
And, the types of boats and the equipment being used on those vessels vary widely, depending on the boat’s size, type, and mission.
Dean Jones, director of sales for Metal Shark Aluminum Boats, says the type of vessel chosen by a fire department can be somewhat regional, with those in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southern California areas typically looking for boats in the 29- to 60-foot range, while other areas of the country usually are seeking boats in the 24- to 30-foot range. “With boats used on inland waterways, we’ve seen an uptick to 28- to 35-foot monohulls this year, up from 21- to 30-footers, and usually a combination of fire and rescue craft,” Jones points out.
He says that Metal Shark’s 28-foot Courageous, 29-foot Defiant, and 32-foot Defiant models have proven very popular with fire departments and usually are set up with dive door or rescue door cutouts in either one or both gunwales. “On the inboard engine versions of our boats, we also can put a dive platform off the stern and have built some boats that are bow-door models.”
Imaging Technology on Boats
Gary Smith, director of sales and marketing for Lake Assault Boats, says that his company has been installing 3D imaging equipment in some of Lake Assault’s bow-door models. “Garmin and Loranz have introduced technology that allows rescuers to look ahead of the craft for either victims or submerged items,” Smith says. “Loranz has 3D imaging for its sonar that allows the viewer to see the contours of the bottom, which is useful in looking for a drowning victim or something submerged. Garmin introduced Panoptic, a transducer mounted in the bow that gives a forward-looking view as the craft is moving through the water, giving views of items suspended in the water and allowing shallow water searches where a body might be tangled in branches or suspended in the water.”
Smith notes that for rescue-style boats designed for small or shallow water operations, Lake Assault has flattened out the bottom of a boat to make it more usable in shallow water and also put on a tunnel hull in the stern so the outboard motors can be raised higher, allowing the propellers to be used in shallow water. “Another feature we’re putting on boats is jack plates, either electrically or hydraulically controlled mounting brackets that allow an operator to raise the outboard vertically in shallow water,” he says. “In addition, we’re using water jets to allow boats to operate in shallow water, either built into the hull like a Hamilton jet or a jet pump impeller in place of a propeller on an outboard motor.”
RIB Rescue Boats
Matthew Velluto, director of business development for RIBCRAFT USA, says that fire departments are choosing rigid-hull inflatable boats (RIBs) in the under-20-foot range to use chiefly as rescue boats. “Sixteen and 19 feet are typical sizes,” Velluto notes, “and each one has the room to take a victim aboard. “Our 5.85 model (19-footer) is the most popular model we sell to fire departments because it can carry a Stokes basket on deck and have enough space for two personnel to attend to the patient.”
When fire departments choose a RIB in the over-20-foot range, Velluto points out, “they usually are looking for a cross-functional boat that can handle both fire and rescue incidents. We make the 6.5, a 21-foot model, that has a hard-plumbed portable pump, center console, and lots of space behind for personnel and victims.” He continues, “All our RIBs have fiberglass decks and center consoles and provide ease of access to the water to rescue a victim or to use as a dive platform. We’ve been told by fire departments that the smaller RIBs offer a lot more versatility in getting close to victims or when necessary to approach the shore or other boats.”
Jay Milner, project manager for MetalCraft Marine Inc., says the company has introduced a new line of RIBs, called Interceptor, in sizes of 23 to 66 feet. “The most popular sizes being sought by fire departments are the 23- through 33-foot models,” Milner points out. “We can make them with a RIB air collar, with a foam collar, or a hybrid of both—whatever the department desires—and they can be used for either fire or rescue purposes.” Milner notes, “The vessels have no shafts external to the hull, no struts or props, and an impeller water jet, so there’s a clean, flat bottom.”
Stephan Lance, president of Defender Industries Inc., says his company has RIBs built for it to its designs and under its name. “We offer the Defender First Responder Boat, an inflatable, in commercial-grade PVC or commercial-grade Hypalon,” Lance says, “with a rubber bottom, and a choice of air, wood, or aluminum floor to stiffen the RIB. Sizes are 12 feet 6 inches, 14 feet 1 inch, and 15 feet 5 inches.”
Lance says Defender also offers a RIB with a fiberglass hull and inflatable collar in two sizes: 14 feet 1 inch and 15 feet 1 inch. He notes the trend among fire departments is an aluminum floored inflatable or RIB.
Hard Hull Craft
Mark Stott, vice president and sales engineer for Moose Boats Inc., says the majority of its boats are used in port applications as fire and rescue boats with fire pumps of up to 1,500 gallons per minute (gpm). “Catamarans are what we are known for,” Stott says, “as well as our 34- and 36-foot monohull dual-purpose fire and rescue boats. We recently built a 36-foot monohull for the New Orleans (LA) Fire Department with a 1,500-gpm pump, two 350-horsepower (hp) Yamaha outboard motors, and a rescue deck with a bifold door that folds out from the gunwale and has a secondary platform eight inches underwater when deployed.”
Stott notes that Moose Boats’s 37-foot water jet catamaran has great stability, a shallow draught, a large cabin, and a good platform for shallow water access. “We’ve built the M2-37 jet boats for the West Pierce (WA) Fire and Rescue, the Bellingham (WA) Fire Department, the Richmond (CA) Fire Department, the New Bedford (MA) Fire Department, and the Sandwich (MA) Fire Department, among others,” he says.
Tony Lumpkin, founder of RescueONE Connector Boats, says his boat’s flat-bottom design will float in six inches of water, allowing excellent access in rescue situations. “The boat is 16½ feet long and six feet wide, with a StiffBACK™ double hull design that increases stiffness safety and durability,” Lumpkin says. “The boats have a QuickFIT™ railing that allows any number of boats to easily be connected to form any size and shape of floating platform.”
RescueONE has introduced a new design of rescue boat, Lumpkin says, the VX25, V-hull boat with a center console and 225-hp outboard motor. “It’s a 23-foot hull with a 2½-foot rack around the back of the motor to protect it and is what the coastal and Great Lakes guys have been asking for,” he notes. “The VX25 has a removable door in the side that allows bringing an injured victim in on a Stokes basket.”
Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue
Mark Bogush, special operations chief for Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue, says his agency has fire and rescue boats ranging from the 70-foot, 13,000-gpm Patriot fire boat to two RIBs and one soft-bottom inflatable. “The 10-foot RIB is on a trailer with a 25-hp outboard and is used for shallow water rescues because it’s easy to launch,” Bogush says. “Typically it carries an operator and two rescuers. We also have a dive rescue team called the Tactical Medic Response Team that uses a 15-horsepower outboard on a soft bottom inflatable blown up by self-contained breathing apparatus bottles. They are deployed for shallow water, lake, or pond incidents.”
Bogush says that Tampa Water Rescue Station 14 also has a 23-foot Boston Whaler with twin 115-hp outboards designed as a rescue boat with a removable side opening that can accommodate backboards or Stokes baskets. The department also has a 20-foot center-console rescue boat, a 27-foot Boston Whaler fire boat, a 30-foot aluminum Sea Ark fire boat with enclosed cab, and the Patriot.
San Diego (CA) Fire-Rescue
Rob Brown, lifeguard sergeant for San Diego (CA) Fire-Rescue, says that the department is responsible for 17 miles of oceanfront, “the most dangerous recreational body of water in California.” The department operates six 22-foot Boston Whalers called “surf boats” that have a modified cathedral hull with chines down the center to help the craft track in the surf. The boats have a cutout transom on the stern and a bubble on the front that deflects the waves, allowing the boats to get into 15-foot-high surf. Brown says it’s the primary rescue boat in San Diego’s fleet.
“We also have three patrol vessels, 22-foot Boston Whalers, two with an open-bow design that do water rescue on Mission Bay and support dive operations,” Brown points out. “We also have a 26-foot Silver Ship rescue boat that can tow disabled vessels and support dive operations. It has a collar around the outside to allow us to come up to a hard-hulled vessel without damaging Rescue 3.”
Other San Diego craft, Brown says, include three multirole rescue/fire boats: Marine 1 is a 32-foot Seaway with two 350-hp inboard Volvo diesel engines. Marine 2 is a 32-footer with two gas-powered inboards. Each has a single 500-gpm Stang monitor and a 1,500-gpm pump. Marine 3 is a HikeMetal 43-foot fireboat with two 1,500-gpm Stang guns, powered by a double-prop diesel inboard/outboard motor.
Kerry Stephen, chief of FDNY’s marine division, says the department had an unusual water rescue call on a cold, windy day late in December 2017. “The 911 call was for the Rockaway ferry run aground and taking on water on a sandbar off Brooklyn with 25 passengers aboard,” Stephen says. “We sent two 33-foot SAFE Boats, from Manhattan and Staten Island, along with fire boat Three Forty Three from Manhattan. “The police department had launched a Zodiac to get to the ferry, but we couldn’t get within 150 to 200 feet of it with our boats due to shallow water.”
Stephen says the 140-foot Three Forty Three carries a 17-foot SAFE boat with a 90-hp Yamaha motor, which it launched with two firefighters, two U.S. Coast Guard personnel, a pump, and an A-frame ladder. “The boat arrived at the ferry, and we put the Coasties aboard, then set up the pump in the engine room,” he says. “We removed the passengers two at a time down a Jacob’s ladder, then transferred them to the 33-foot SAFE boats, which then ferried them a quarter-mile to the Three Forty Three. The operation started at 1750 hours and we got all the passengers to the Brooklyn Army Terminal by 2300.”
Seattle (WA) Fire Department
Ron Mondragon, deputy chief of operations and administration for the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, says Seattle has a long history of using small- and medium-sized boats for fire and rescue going back to a former Coast Guard amphibious rescue craft it acquired in 1965 to a portable-pump patrol boat in 1976 and a jet drive RIB in 1996. “Today we use a medium-sized platform of fast-attack boats,” Mondragon says, “a 50-foot twin-engine jet boat with a 6,000-gpm pump, 200 gallons of foam, and a 30-knot maximum speed deployed on fresh water and a similar 50-footer with 38-knot max speed on salt water that’s used in shallow draft environments and tidal areas. The draft on the jet boats is 30 inches, so we can get places quickly for rescue purposes.”
Seattle also has Rescue Boat 5, a 25-foot SAFE boat with dual outboards and a 24-inch draught that can do 50 knots. “It can get into very tight areas,” Mondragon points out, “even under piers to perform multi missions, like rescue, moving equipment, recon, and patrolling.” As a backup to the SAFE boat, Seattle also has RIBs that are launchable from its two large fireboats, the Leschi and the Chief Seattle.
Another element to Seattle’s small vessel fleet is its submersible remotely operated vehicles, which can be used for rescues, recovery, intelligence, hull sweeps, and under-pier recon. “The vessel looks like a mini submarine and has an arm that can reach out and grab a person or item,” Mondragon notes. “It can be operated from the land or from a vessel because it has power from a generator through a cable for its sonar, camera, lights, and roller system for under hull sweeps. It also has GPS, so it knows the depth and location of the unit at all times.”
Water Source and Dive Platform
The Verdoy (NY) Fire Department runs a 24-foot Harbor Guard Firehawk fire/rescue boat that has a crew of three, a 450-hp V8 inboard/outboard motor, folding doors on each side, an 800-gpm fire pump, and an Elkhart Stinger monitor. Greg Serio, past chief of Verdoy, says the department recently was asked to mutual aid with neighboring Boght Fire Department as a rescue/recovery platform on the Mohawk River for a car that went off a highway bulkhead into the water.
“Our boat was required to lash up to the bulkhead along our starboard side and serve as a dive platform for the New York State Police divers,” Serio says. “I piloted the boat in lengthwise, instead of nose in, and we lashed off to cleats on the bulkhead, then laddered it so they could bring their personnel and dive gear on board. The divers used the rescue platform on our port side to access the water.”
Serio notes that besides rescue equipment like two backboards, throw rings, hooks, and grapnels, Boat 11 also carries two lengths of three-inch hoseline to tie in to shore-based fire apparatus. “With our 800-gpm pump, we’re able to supply the land apparatus with water in an area along the waterfront,” he says, “that has many large, expensive homes but a limited water supply through an old six-inch deadheaded water main.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.