New Eyes for the


By Lee Zitko

    You're the Captain in charge of Number 2 Fireboat at Berth 227 on Terminal Island in the heart of the great Los Angeles Harbor.

    On a late-winter evening you're making a routine check of quarters before turning in. By habit, you stop above the stern of ninety-nine feet of water-borne fire-fighting apparatus lying silently in the slip and look forward through the high arch which usually frames a familiar portion of the far side of the main channel. But this evening that portion, and all the rest of 45 miles of wharves, lumber yards, oil terminals and countless other highly flammable installations are fast becoming obscured by a swift rolling blanket of one of your meanest natural enemies--fog.

    Continuing your rounds you think back on the many times like this when you secretly wished there were some way to hurry up that shift-ending eight o'clock taps signal tomorrow morning. You can well remember the taught nerves of all hands as they used to kid over their coffee about disconnecting the bells on nights like this one, only to sometimes find themselves an hour later grouping there way along a "looks-good-on-paper" compass course down the channel to reach somebody's burning warehouse. If they didn't clobber a ship or a pier on the way, that is.
    Back in you office you make a journal entry, kill the glow on your cigar and head for the sack, knowing that if that bell rings tonight you can head up, down or across that channel at full legal speed, because you and the men of your crew have found a new friend. Radar.
    Radar on fireboats is not an entirely new idea to the Administration of the Los Angeles Fire Department, for as far back as 1949 Assistant Chief Bethel F. Gifford in charge of Supply and Maintenance included in his budget request a proposal expenditure for the installation of radar equipment on L.A.'s fireboats, but two things were against it.

    Number one, the Budget and Efficiency Committee of the City Council crossed it off as too expensive. Secondly, and reasonably, further investigation showed that units of the current design were only adaptable to ocean-going navigation and of little use to mariners on relatively close-quartered inland waterways.
    It was not until recently that the electronics people came up with a type of radar unit purposely designed for river use--one that would detect targets at the closest possible range rather than at the furthest possible range. The Decca River Radar unit now making itself noticed atop the ten foot mast stepped just aft of the pilot house on Boat 2 is capable of Range Discrimination as close as 30 feet from the Boat and up to 10 miles away.




    On the 9 inch viewing screen of the "Indicator" unit, mounted in the pilot house to the left of the wheel, a selector switch gives the viewer 6 different Range Scales to choose from as he observes. This means that a round picture somewhat similar to what you would see from the air directly above the ship, and with the ship as its center-point, can be changed to include all objects within a 10 mile scale or reduced to as low as the 1/2 mile scale giving a much larger image of objects within that limited radius. In connection with this Range Scale a further improvement in the Decca River Model is the off-centering of the radar picture. One drawback of the regular marine-type radar is that with the ship represented at the exact center of the picture that portion of the picture showing conditions astern is mostly wasted. Unlike the Naval Captain who uses his radar screen to detect the presence of enemy craft from all bearing points around his ship, the Fireboat Pilot under way in fog, dense smoke or heavy rain wants to know what dangerous objects lie ahead, not which ones he has safely passed. When off-centering is used the center of the picture is moved toward the lower or near edge of the screen so that some of the portion of the picture, which is of little value, is cut off by the tube and added to the picture ahead, thus giving increased warning area.
     Another improvement in the newly acquired unit has to do with Bearing Discrimination. Two objects can be as close together as 10 yards or differ in bearing by no more than 1.2 degrees and still be shown on the radar screen as clearly separated. Objects, or "targets," on any radar screen are, of course, far from being clearly defined as in a good television picture.
    Both Fire Boat No. 2 and Fire Boat No. 1 are now equipped with radar units. Their operation is not appreciably different in any way so far as the units are concerned. Chief Gifford states that, ". . . in the past it's been a combination of a lot of handling skill and good luck that has avoided accidents with the Boats in periods of low visibility." He said further that the added safety and efficiency factors brought about by the radar installations on the two Boats was well worth the 15,314 dollar cost.

    The men on the Fire Boats have lost no time in sharpening up on the operation of the new equipment, and they've had some fun in the process. They no longer start cranking the engine-room bells to avoid a sea gull sitting on the water two points off the star board bow.
    "A" shift Pilot Gordon Woodman is one of the men who did a lot of leg work and research on radar use prior to written recommendations to the Administration Office. As "Woody" puts it, "The important thing is to be thoroughly familiar with your physical surroundings so that you can quickly recognize the more or less sketchy objects on the screen. Like you landlubbers say--know your district!"

    A lot of thought and planning went into the study of just what type and make of radar equipment would be most efficient and practical for use on the L.A.F.D. Fire Boats. Questionnaires were sent to agencies using radar both at sea and on inland waterways such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Fish and Game Services, and several large Fire Departments, having harbor areas in their protection districts. Information from theses replies coupled with officially witnessed demonstrations arranged for by the Harbor firemen resulted in an intelligent approach to getting the wheels turning toward this big step in increased Fire Department efficiency.

MAY 1956

This article appeared in the May 1956 issue of THE FIREMAN'S GRAPEVINE.

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