By SCOTT ANDERSON
Lake Travis, located on the Colorado River in central Texas, is a sprawling reservoir that serves as a primary water source for the city of Austin, Texas.
The lake is well known for its wide range of recreational activities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and SCUBA diving. “Because of its tremendous popularity, Lake Travis is also, unfortunately, one of the more deadly lakes in Texas,” explains Lieutenant Kyle Swarts of the Pedernales (TX) Fire Department. Portions of Lake Travis are included in the northern boundary of the department’s 55-square-mile protection area. All told, the department covers more than 200 miles of shoreline. “We were an all-volunteer department until 2003, when the first paid staff was hired,” Swarts said. Because of its proximity to Lake Travis, the department has always needed a fireboat in its apparatus fleet. “Our previous craft was left over from the volunteer department’s days, and it was retrofitted to give us a minimal level of capabilities. It finally got to the point where it couldn’t meet our requirements.”
The Pedernales Fire Department learned about Lake Assault Boats, a custom manufacturer located on the western edge of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. A neighboring department, Lake Travis Fire Rescue, had purchased a similar boat from the manufacturer a few years earlier. After a thorough evaluation process, Pedernales purchased a 28-foot fireboat featuring a modified “V” hull, a 1,500-gallon-per-minute (gpm) fire pump, a 63-inch hydraulically operated bow door, a davit crane, a fully enclosed pilothouse, and a full array of advanced electronics. The craft is designed to respond to a wide range of emergencies, including structural fires, on-the-water rescues, and wildland fires.
Structural Fires: A Case Study
In January 2018, the Pedernales Fire Department was called out to a fully involved structure fire involving a two-story, 5,000-square-foot home under construction just a few weeks away from completion. “We initially had two water tenders at the scene and a third from a mutual-aid department all feeding into a quint aerial,” recalled Swarts. “Most of our district doesn’t have fire hydrants, so we’re very dependent on tenders.” Firefighters quickly realized that they would not be able to keep up with the quint’s water demands. (The turnaround time to get one of the tenders to a hydrant was about 25 minutes.)
Firefighters quickly made the decision to call on the fireboat and its 1,500-gpm pump. “I—and a few other firefighters—had a sheriff’s deputy take us down to the marina,” explains Swarts. “We raced back to the fire scene and anchored the boat alongside the dock closest to the house.” By the time they arrived, crews had already deployed five-inch hose down to the dock. Firefighters quickly hooked up a small “pony” section to the fire pump and began to feed water uphill to the aerial apparatus. “We were there for a couple of hours and estimate that the boat pumped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 gallons.”
Because of the elevation change from the water line to the tip of the aerial, crews from the mutual-aid departments were initially skeptical that the fireboat would be able to supply the aerial. “The operation was no problem at all for our boat’s firefighting system,” recalls Swarts. “In fact, the aerial operator had to call a few times and ask us to knock the pressure down.” Environmental conditions that night were less than ideal. “By the time we returned to the marina, the boat was covered in a sheet of ice. This was the first time we attacked a major fire in real-world conditions, and it performed flawlessly.”
Water Rescues: More Efficient and Effective
The craft and its crew respond to a wide range of on-the-water and shoreline emergencies, including boating accidents, missing persons reports, and drowning/recovery operations. The department also conducts high-angle rope rescues along cliffs that line portions of the shoreline. In these scenarios, according to firefighters, the boat’s hydraulically operated bow door is its single most popular feature. “The first holiday weekend after placing the boat into service, we rescued a pair of jet skiers who were reported lost on the water,” recalls Swarts. “They were fine, but their jet skis had died on a remote part of the lake.” The crew lowered the bow door down to the waterline and loaded the pair of jet skis right onto the craft’s deck. “In a really slick operation, we strapped the jet skis down and transported the people and their craft back to their group. In other instances, we’ve used the bow door basically to scoop up accident victims and slide them safely into our boat.”
Portions of the shoreline feature rocky cliffs, and the department periodically has needed to conduct high-angle rope rescues. “Before having the new fireboat, we’d oftentimes secure patients and carefully hoist them up the cliff to a waiting emergency vehicle,” says Swarts. “Now, we can deploy the bow door onto the shoreline to keep it stable and walk the patient right onboard. It makes the whole operation a lot safer for them and for us. If we attempted this with another style boat, we’d have to climb the patient over a side rail.”
Wildland Response: Enhanced Capabilities
Like many parts of Texas, the Lake Travis region carries the risk of major wildfires, and the new fireboat is built to enable a faster and more effective response. “If needed, we can use the boat to quickly shuttle fire crews and ATVs where needed,” observes Swarts. The fireboat is also an ideal conduit to take advantage of the lake’s virtually limitless water supply. “The fireboat gives us a whole new level of capabilities,” adds Swarts. “We can set up anywhere on the lake and create a fill point for water tenders or brush trucks; it gives us a lot of flexibility to more quickly mitigate an incident. That was one of the main reasons we got the boat in the first place: to use it as a floating fire hydrant.”
SCOTT ANDERSON owns a marketing and communications company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has written about first responders and the fire and emergency apparatus industry for more than 20 years.