Fireboat No. 2 can throw 12,000 gallons of water a minute from five turret nozzles or from hoses at 26 rail hydrants.

Reprinted from WESTWAYS by special permission of Automobile Club of Southern California


It's night. Activity is at a minimum along miles of docks on the San Pedro waterfront. Suddenly the shrill clang of an alarm bell pierces the silence in a Terminal Island boathouse. Twenty men race down a gangplank and board a long, tugboat-like vessel. In less than 45 seconds the boat is churning its way into the harbor, speeding the firemen of the sea to another alarm.

Whether it be San Pedro, San Diego, Seattle, or San Francisco, good harbor fire protection is vital to the maritime economy of the Pacific Coast.

And the seagoing smokeaters of the Los Angeles Fire Department who protect America's ninth busiest harbor rate among the best in their dangerous profession.

These sturdy men who man the L.A.F.D.'s fireboats are always ready to sail to battle waterfront fires. While they fight from the water, fellow smokeaters from the department's 6th or harbor battalion also roll by land to combat the flames.

Admiral of the fireboat fleet and boss of the 6th battalion is Battalion Chief F. P. Adams.

"Our Fireboat 2 is the best all-around fireboat in service in United States today," said the veteran harbor firefighter. "Sure, New York City's Firefighter is bigger and can throw more water, but we can do more with this boat."

No. 2 the queen of the smokeaters' fleet, is based at Berth 277, Terminal Island, on the Main Channel. The 100-foot-long craft can pump up to 12,000 gallons of water a minute from five mammoth turret nozzles or from hoses attached to 26 rail hydrants.

Below decks are heavy engines.

"We have three big marine engines to run the boat," Chief Adams said. "Then we have four additional pumping engines. We also can and do cut the main engines in to run the pumps. You can see how we can get so much water pressure with all that horsepower."

No. 2 has a triple screw with which the boat can be turned in its own length, something highly desirable in waterfront firefighting. It'll do slightly in excess of 16 knots.

Chief Adams is always proud to show off No. 2, which although it was built in 1925, is always kept in top condition.

"See that big tower toward the stern," the chief pointed out. "It is 30 feet high and our turret nozzle on top will go even 12 feet higher."

Another turret tops the pilothouse. One is on the bow and two are on the stern.

Back of the pilothouse is the nozzle room. Here is a glittering array of giant brass nozzles and a small arsenal of other special equipment. Big six-inch tips for the turret guns line the walls along with cutting torches, oxygen masks, and a myriad of other unique tools needing to properly fight waterfront blazes.

"Look here," the chief said as he picked up one of the nozzles. "This is a 3 1/2"-inch mystery-type fog nozzle. You don't see many of these in the whole country."

Boat 2 actually carries more and heavier hose than a regular fire engine, much of it being stored in big deck reels ready for instance action.

"We carry 1,000 feet of 3 1/2-inch hose, 1,500 of 2 1/2-inch hose, and 850 of 1 1'/2," the chief said.

Nerve center of the boat is the pilothouse. Here, with the pilot at the wheel, the captain directs operations. The pilot--a fireman--navigates. He is assisted by a mate and three engineers below decks.

The pilothouse is fairly simple--standard engine room controls, steering wheel, three-way radio for communications between headquarters, the fireboats, and land-based companies, charts, searchlight controls, and other instruments.

"We have a tough job to do here," Chief Adams pointed out. "With all the gasoline around the harbor--this is one of the largest oil and gas loading ports in the world--we must move fast by both land and sea.


No. 2 pours water from forward batteries on
flaming gasoline at a big marine oil terminal

"You know, one little gas spill in the channel could set half the harbor ablaze. And don't forget--we have several big refineries adjacent to the harbor, plus millions of dollars' worth of warehouses and wharves, not to say anything of the shipping itself."

The chief fears a tough, underwharf fire worst of all.

"This type of fire takes a real coordinated effort, but without the boats, well, there are just times when we couldn't make it."

On underwharf fires, the fireboat firemen often will go in and try to get directly at the fire instead of taking the easy and safer way and letting the blaze burn out to them.

"We carry a small skiff on the boat," the chief said. "We hook up a heavy hose line to the boat pumps and then a couple of men go in under the wharf after the fire. They can reverse the nozzle and use water as a jet to propel the skiff.

"Sure. It's dangerous, but after all, we get paid to fight fires."

Los Angeles has two more fireboats. No. 1, the original boat of the fleet, is based at Berth 260, Fish Harbor. A 65-foot cruiser with a small pump. It is used for inspection trips, fire prevention activities and small boat fires.

The firemen have another unusual use for Boat 2 in fighting fires at the mammoth Wilmington refinery of Union Oil Company.

"We can tie the boat up at the refinery dock and hook our hoses up to the refinery's hydrant system. Then we 'rev up' the engines and can pump those 12,000 gallons of water a minute into the hydrant mains so there'll be plenty of pressure up where the fire is," Chief Adams said.

Interior of the big wooden boathouse where Boat 2 is berthed is something like a fire station. However, instead of an apparatus floor, there is a dock with a gangplank leading from the adjacent dormitory and office. A machine shop is located in the building, too.

"It doesn't take the boys any longer to get under way than men in regular land fire companies," the chief pointed out. "We always do it in 45 seconds or less."

Admiral of the fireboat fleet is Chief F. P. Adams,
here inspecting some giant fog nozzles.

On the land side of the boathouse is a garage where a foamite wagon and boat tender truck are quartered.

"That tender truck carries several thousand feet of a 3 1/2-inch hose. We could use that hose to lay an emergency water main up to the center of San Pedro, using the boat pumps if the regular water system was bombed out," commented the chief.

The L.A. fireboats are the mainstay of the fire defenses of the entire harbor area. Long Beach recently placed two smaller fireboats into service and the Coast Guard and Navy have several boat firefighting units which can be manned if needed.

L.A. and Long Beach firemen cooperate under mutual aid agreements.

Boats 1 and 2 do not leave the harbor, but Chief Adams has used speedy No. 3 to board ships coming into the harbor with fire problems.

"We reconnoiter the situation. Then I can radio to my boats and get them in position to fight the blaze when we get inside the breakwater."

Chief Adams recalls the harbor's worst maritime fire as the SS Markay blaze and explosion on June 22, 1947.

"That explosion could have taken the whole harbor if we hadn't been on top of it with the fireboats in addition to our land companies," the chief said. "Damage to the Markay and other facilities was set at $10,000,000."

Another bad dock alarm was at Todd Shipyards in 1945.

"That time an outfitting wharf was burning. There was a crane on the dock and a seaplane tender tied up on one side and a destroyer tender on the other. We moved the boats alongside the dock and knocked the fire down."

In June, 1954, the fireboats were again used to help control an unexplained explosion and fire at Tidewater Associated Oil Co's big marine loading terminal.

Chief Adams says there are few problems to get personnel to man the boats.

"Why, I have three or four firemen who live in Highland Park, the other side of downtown L.A. And they drive 25 miles down here. Guess they must like it."

Three marine engines run fireboat No. 2 which can do slightly more than 16 knots. These main engines may also be cut in to run the pumps.

Capt. Frank Steele gives instructions to Pilot Maurice Brownel at the wheel. In front of the pilothouse on either side are hose reels.


This article appeared in the December 1954 issue of THE FIREMEN'S GRAPEVINE.

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