FEATURE: Fighting Fire with Fire

Wednesday, July 17, 2002
By PA3 Amy Thomas

In 1904 a boiler onboard the steamship vessel General Slocum exploded, killing 1,000 people in the ensuing blaze. Even though the conditions that existed on the General Slocum would no longer be a factor on modern ships, safety at sea is still a relevant concern today.

This summer, cruise ships, whale watching cruises, passenger ferries, dinner cruises and chartered fishing vessels will transit Cape Cod waterways with millions of visitors, leaving rescuers in the region faced with an enormous number of potential victims should a maritime disaster, like the fire on the General Slocum, occur. Surprisingly, to many firefighters and Coast Guardsmen alike, if a ship fire occurs within three miles of land, it is the local fire department, not the Coast Guard, responsible for putting out the fire. "We're not in charge," said Lt. Joel Roberts from the Coast Guard Marine Safety Field Office on Cape Cod. "We don't have any firefighting assets. The hoses and pumps we have on our ships are for putting out our own fires. That's what we train for."Until recently, firefighters in the Cape Cod region didn't have an effective way to fight fires at sea, or even understand the distinct differences between marine firefighting as opposed to fighting a structure fire. After a risk-management work group meeting between Coast Guard Group Woods Hole and Marine Safety Office Providence in 1999, Roberts, along with Senior Chief Petty Officer Mario Tomellini and Falmouth Deputy Fire Chief Glen Rogers, decided to do something about it. Tomellini, a Coast Guard reservist for the past 24 years and an eight-year veteran of the East Providence, R.I., fire department, said that studying case histories of disastrous shipboard fires was a big wake up call.

"We wondered, 'What would we do in a situation like that?'" Tomellini said. Enter the Cape and Islands Marine Incident Response Team (CIMIRT). Comprised of the Coast Guard, Cape and Islands Fire Departments, the Federal and Massachusetts Management Agencies (FEMA & MEMA), and the Massachusetts Steamship Authority (SSA), the CIMIRT was formed to be an efficient, collaborative firefighting team. "The whole purpose behind CIMIRT is so we all know each other beforehand," said Roberts. "So that when I show up at the dock at 3 a.m., the fire chief isn't saying, 'Who's that guy, and get him off my dock.'" Putting fire trucks on board a large cargo vessel had been done before. The problem for CIMIRT was finding a vessel. CIMIRT was basically working with a zero budget; there was no one to pay for any extra resources, no funding of any kind. After looking at several options, Tomellini and Rogers approached the Massachusetts SSA and broached the idea of using one of the SSA's offshore supply vessels, the Sankaty, as a firefighting vessel. The Sankaty is a 200-foot cargo vessel capable of holding four fire trucks and two ambulance-size trucks, with plenty of room left over for the crew to work. As with any ship, the more weight the Sankaty carries, the deeper it sits in the water, and the more stable it is. "

It's impossible to put too many people or too many trucks on this boat," Roberts said. "We'd run out of deck space first." With all that deck space, plus a galley and housing space for about 100 crew and passengers, the Sankaty could stay at the scene of a marine fire indefinitely. "It would be one stop shopping," Roberts said. "We want to go out there with everything and everybody, so we don't have to be running back and forth for supplies or crew changes. All the swapping could be done by small boats." The SSA had no trouble donating the use of their time, personnel and vessel to help fight a marine fire, Roberts added. "They (SSA) did a risk-management survey, asking 'whose boat is most likely to have an issue?'" Roberts said. "The SSA realized they've got nine ferries out there on these runs, and they carry the most passengers." With the Sankaty, the CIMIRT had found a way to get multiple fire trucks and plenty of firefighters and other emergency responders to the scene of a marine fire. The next step was figuring out how to get enough water to the fire trucks. "We went over many options and decided to use the existing fire system on board," Tomellini said. "The problem was that the two motors in the engine room weren't powerful enough to supply enough water to a fire truck." Tomellini learned there was another motor in the bowthruster of the Sankaty capable of running a fire pump at 800 gallons per minute. In order to harness the power of that motor, Tomellini and Rogers came up with some modifications for the fire system's piping. The Sankaty already had a fire monitor installed on the top of the wheelhouse, but it could only be fed water directly from a pump attached to the bowthruster motor. Tomellini and Rogers designed a modification that would allow water to be diverted from the fire monitor piping system to dewatering eductors, nearly doubling the volume.

The eductor would then send the discharge to a fire engine, thereby increasing pressure and adding firefighting foam, if necessary. From the fire engine, the foam solution is directed to the fire monitor. Furthermore, the valves on the modification could be configured to provide additional outlets for more fire hoses. If the Sankaty's fire pumps should fail, the new piping would allow the fire trucks on board to supply water directly to the fire monitor. With the new modifications, the Sankaty is capable of producing 1,080 gallons of water per minute for firefighting, as opposed to the 600 gallons per minute it could produce before. "With the Sankaty we have a thousand times more marine firefighting capability than we did before," said Roberts. "There are about 15 different ways to use the new system with three different nozzles types for the fire monitor." The Sankaty can get underway in about 20 minutes and be on scene to fight a fire in a matter of hours. Its crew of 10 SSA employees is on call to divert from other missions at any time to fight a fire. Under the provisions of CIMIRT, when the master of a burning vessel calls the Coast Guard for help, the Coast Guard contacts whichever fire department has jurisdiction, Rogers said. The fire department responds and notifies the area Mutual Aid Center, which is located at the Barnstable County Sheriff's Department. The Mutual Aid Center coordinates extra resources between communities and will begin making the calls to area rescue services and members of CIMIRT.

"Ideally, if we get a call, CIMIRT and emergency crews would be at the pier waiting for the Sankaty's crew to show up instead of vice versa," Roberts said. "We've done this already. We've planned for it." Without planning, effectively fighting a shipboard fire would be difficult, at best. It soon became clear to the members of CIMIRT that firefighters needed to be trained to fight marine fires, something they were not accustomed to. "It's an eye-opener for firefighters to go on a ship and realize it's not the same kind of structure they're used to fighting fires in," said Tomellini. For two years, Cape Cod firefighters have attended the Annual Hampton Roads Marine Firefighting Symposium in Virginia. Sponsored in part by the Coast Guard, the six-day course is designed to familiarize firefighters with methods necessary in handling marine fires.

The Coast Guard provided transportation and lodging for the firefighters at nearby Training Center Yorktown, which kept the cost to the local fire departments at about $200 per person. Roberts said he believes the training to be invaluable to firefighters because it gets everyone using the same terminology, exposes them to the uniqueness of fighting a fire on a ship and introduces them to basic ship nomenclature. "We teach them where the main structural zones are, what a fire boundary is and the importance of closing it," Roberts said. "We have to teach them not to go on board and start making their way down the stairwells to get to the engine room when all they have to do is find an escape hatch, and they're right there." Firefighters are also taught how to read a ship's fire control plan and which installed firefighting systems might be available. They are also shown where survivors are most likely to be found. "It's a whole different world to fight a fire in a steel 'building' than in a conventional wooden structure," Roberts said. The compressed air bottle that firefighters carry usually last long enough to get them to a fire, address the fire to some degree, and get them back out. On a ship, those bottles probably wouldn't get a firefighter to the scene.

In a huge cooperative effort to try out some of the techniques learned during the training, Cape Cod emergency agencies sponsored a drill involving one of the SSA's other ferries, the Eagle. In the scenario, an individual drives a car with a bomb in it onto the ferry, detonates the bomb, and takes a hostage below decks. "This gave the firefighters a more realistic operating environment," Rogers said. "They don't typically do fire drills on a smoke-filled car deck." Due to the large number of celebrities, executives and other prominent people who live and vacation on Cape Cod, Roberts said this scenario had already been identified as a realistic threat, even before the events of September 11th. "Nine-eleven was sort of an exclamation point on the training," Roberts said. Although positive towards the idea of the training, the participants were initially skeptical because no one knew who was going to pay for it. In the end, every agency who participated donated time and resources in recognition of the importance of the training. "The Falmouth and Hyannis Fire Departments paid for all firefighters to be on overtime and supplied all the fire trucks; MEMA paid for gas, food and incidentals," Rogers said. "The Coast Guard launched a helo for two hours, at a cost of $4,000 per hour." The Eagle ferry drill was deemed successful and educational by those involved, but it is just the tip of the iceberg for the members of CIMIRT. They want to get more agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, involved in the training. The specialized training received at the Hampton Roads Symposium and the use of the Sankaty for marine firefighting are not mandated by anyone, Roberts said. "It's a mariner's thing, " Roberts added. "If there's anybody out there on the water who's in trouble, everybody responds to help them out."

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