After spending my first few decades 600 miles from the nearest ocean, I’m endlessly enthralled by living just a mile or so from one of the world’s largest ports (the busiest ones are in Asia, if you’re curious). There, within sight of my street and the highways I travel is an astounding variety of gigantic ocean-going craft. They are, primarily, massive container ships, tankers and freighters carrying oil, sulphur and containerized freight. The Port has its own railroad just to move this stuff around the surface of the port. But, since cargo ships are basically just gigantic platforms (granted, hundreds of feet long), even more fascinating is the endless variety of work boats — whether they’re fishing trawlers, tugs, dredges, crew boats and other craft — that make the Port of Los Angeles a going concern.
The combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represent the busiest container freight harbor in the U.S., covering 7,500 acres of land and water, through which more than 2,000 ships come and go in an average year. Over the past several decades, the harbor’s role in fishing has declined, but — before the era of containerized freight — it was a center of commercial fishing, and thousands of people made their living catching, processing, canning and shipping seafood here. Now, the place bristles with gigantic gantries that load and unload freight from around the world (click on photos for enlarged view).
The Port is also a base for cruise ship operations, and about three quarters of a million people sail in and out every year, bound for Mexico and points south, or far up the western coast to Alaska.
Wikipedia says that the port employs about 16,000 people. A lot — perhaps most — of the houses on my street were originally bought by longshoremen and their families, and many of the people here — like my next-door neighbor — still live by that whistle that blows at 7:00 a.m. every morning. On foggy mornings, we awake to the deep, awesome sound of foghorns, reverberating at a tone that resonates to the marrow of your bones.
In a place like this, bad things can happen — seriously bad things. Since the freight in the port at any given time contains a devil’s brew of chemicals, raw materials, petroleum and goods like automobiles, electronics and probably tens of thousands of inflammable stuffed animals, there’s nothing more threatening than a fire.
To respond to a big threat, you need a big answer.
The Los Angeles Fire Department has the Warner L. Lawrence: Fire Boat 2.
It’s berthed immediately downhill from our house in a big domed enclosure like an airplane hangar. This is Los Angeles Fire Department Station 112 (Berth 86, if you’re sailing up the Channel). Fire Station 112 is located at 6th Street and Harbor Blvd. in San Pedro.
There’s also a fire truck based at the station, but the floating fire engine is the star of the show.
Fire Boat 2 is serious, big-time hardware. At 105 feet long, it is a seagoing fire truck on a mammoth scale. Imagine, first, being able to float a fire truck on an inexhaustible source of water. Fire boats everywhere take advantage of this fact, and Fire Boat 2 does it on a stupendous scale. Six ports in the underwater portion of the hull feed 10 “monitors,” which is the official term for the nozzles that direct water. The large bow monitor can discharge up to 11,000 gallons per minute up to 400 feet in the air.
Two monitors on the pilot house level are capable of discharging 5,500 gallons of water per minute each, and can also deploy retardant foam. All told, the boat can direct 38,000 gallons of water per minute! It also has a 50 foot boom, a retractable diving platform, and an area for treating casualties.
Anything more than about 30 feet long that floats is automatically in the category of Things You Can’t Afford. Equip it with the kind of maneuvering power, firefighting capability and the highly trained crew that Fire Boat 2 possesses, and this craft beggars many of the world’s super-yachts as an investment. At the time it was built (launched in 2003) it cost $8.9 million. Pilot Ralph Enderle, who is in charge of driving it and also played a role in overseeing the boat’s construction, estimates that an equivalent craft today would cost nearly $20 million. Designed by Robert Allan Ltd. in Vancouver, B.C., it took 2-1/2 years to construct by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Washington (Whidbey Island).
The fire boat is very similar in size to the big tugs that work around the cargo ships, though approximately 8 feet narrower than the work boats. It shares a very specific and critical component with the big tugs. I asked Ralph about the issue of maneuverability, since he has to position the boat exactly where it’s needed in demanding circumstances. He explained that Fire Boat 2 uses a propulsion system that’s also common on big tug boats, called a Voith-Schneider propeller, or cycloidal drive. The boat has two of them, and they make the craft extremely maneuverable. To read more about that system than I can explain, please CLICK HERE. Ralph was somewhat nonchalant about what I thought would be the daunting task of dealing with all the other vessel traffic in the busy port, explaining that he has direct radio contact with the pilot of any ship in the harbor. Interestingly, Ralph is in charge of steering and operating the boat, which, in nautical terms, makes him the captain, but, in Fire Department usage, “Captain” is an official rank. That position is held by Captain Skelly, who is in charge of the operations at Station 112 and of Fire Boat 2, so Mr. Enderle is referred to as the “pilot” in the firefighting operation, under Captain Skelly’s command.
The boat, impressive as it is, is just a highly sophisticated object. It needs a crew. Captain Skelly explained that there are eight crew members. The most obvious question is, “How can 8 people control 10 different water monitors, plus perform all the other work that’s required?” First, the monitors are all motorized and controlled from the pilot house, not manned by individuals. There is a training and certification process required to become a member of the crew, as you would imagine. Captain Skelly said that having grown up in southern California, oriented to the water, his dream after becoming a fireman was to command this vessel. Well done, Captain.
The photos above are ones I took peering through the windows at the Fire Station 112 berth. At close range, the boat is too massive to be encompassed in a single shot. But, an unexpected bonus of a whale-watching cruise we took several years ago was a look at the ship in the harbor channel. Here it is.
You can see other photos of Fire Boat at the links below, including scenes of it discharging water.
Another day under western skies. For goodness’ sake, whether you’re on land or sea, if you see an emergency vehicle under way with its lights on, pull over and let them pass.
Under Western Skies gratefully acknowledges the generous assistance of the Los Angeles Fire Department, the LAFD Community Liaison Office, Captain Skelly and Pilot Enderle in preparing this article. Photos are used with permission of the L.A.F.D., copyright Brad Nixon.
© 2011, 2015 Brad Nixon