With a price tag of just under $5 million each, the three new fireboats recently purchased by the Port of Houston Fire Department represent the state-of-the-art in firefighting equipment.
Built by MetalCraft Marine, based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, the 70-foot long Firestorm 70 fireboats replace the aging three-boat fleet commissioned in 1973 and 1983, with funding derived primarily from federal grants. Two of the boats are now in service and the third is scheduled to be delivered by the end of April or early May, depending on weather conditions along the circuitous route from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
“The old boats pumped about 4,000 gallons of water per minute each,” said Port of Houston (POH) Fire Department Chief William Buck. “The new boats pump about 14,000 gallons per minute each and while the old boats might do 18 knots on their best day, these new boats can do 45 knots and you could even push them to about 50. This speed is important when you consider the amount of ship channel we have to cover with three boats. One of these new boats has the water pumping capability of all three of the old boats combined.”
Just getting the first fireboat to the Houston Ship Channel required a two-week journey spanning over 1,700 miles. The boat, delivered in June and manned by a five-person crew that include three members of the POH Fire Department, traversed a route that took it through four Great Lakes before sailing down the Mississippi River. The journey took the fireboat across Lake Ontario and Lake Eerie to Detroit, then across Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to Chicago. The trip continued on the Cumberland and Illinois rivers before continuing on the Mississippi River, where it traveled to New Orleans. But along the way, it made stops in Cape Girardeau (Mo.), Memphis, Greenville (Miss.), and Baton Rouge. After a final stop in Galveston, the Firestorm made its way to the Port of Houston.
Buck says the second boat was delivered via a route along the east coast of the U.S. and the third boat is scheduled to utilize the route taken by the first vessel.
“We send our personnel to make the trip so they can learn how to operate the boat during the trip. After the boats are delivered, MetalCraft’s captain stays here for about two weeks to help train our staff on the new boats,” Buck says.
The Firestorm 70, Buck says, is much more than a fireboat. Each is also a rescue vessel equipped with chemical, biological and radiation detection equipment and side sonar for sweeping docks and checking underwater for obstructions. Each carries about 500 gallons of firefighting foam on board and is equipped with a small Zodiac rescue boat, along with an on board air supply for firefighters. The boats are manned by four- to five-person crews.
While the Firestorm is over 70 feet long and has a breadth of nearly 23 feet, Buck says it has just a 34-inch draft, allowing it to operate in shallow waters. The boats are highly maneuverable and can make quick stops and change direction within three boat lengths. They also serve as a mobile ambulance and include a primary care berth and four secondary berths. Portable berths can be positioned in the aft equipment cabin to handle the injured at an incident.
“Our crews are operating the most advanced firefighting equipment in North America,” Buck said.
Because the fireboats, powered by four C18 Caterpillar engines that produce approximately 1,138 horsepower, are so sophisticated, crews had to undergo several weeks of training before the first two boats were put into service. Buck says because that training has already been completed, when the third boat arrives it should be ready for service almost immediately.
MetalCraft Marine, founded in 1987, designs and manufactures custom high performance fire, rescue, patrol, research and other specialized boats and is an industry leader in the design and manufacture of aluminum water-jet propelled craft. Buck says MetalCraft has built more fireboats than any company in North America. The company’s customers include the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and the Panama Canal Authority.
“The entire MetalCraft Marine staff is honored to have been given this contract by the Port of Houston Authority,” said Michael Allen, MetalCraft Marine’s general manager upon delivery of the first fireboat. “Our team of craftsmen put in over 20,000 hours to build this industry leading fast response Firestorm 70.”
Once all three fireboats are put into service, they won’t sit idle very often. Buck said the POH Fire Department made about 525 calls in 2013, with 40 percent of them related to hazard materials. Responding to medical issues also made up 40 percent of the calls last year, with the remainder comprised of rescues and fires. The department consists of 46 firefighters who operate out of three stations along Houston Ship Channel and they respond to marine and land fires and other emergencies in the upper ship channel. Fifteen firefighters are assigned to each station, with crews working on a 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule, and when they’re not responding to calls, firefighters spend much of their time in training.
“Our firefighters are more specialized than any firefighters in Texas,” Buck says. “Most firefighters are certified for structural fires and EMS, but our firefighters are marine and structural fire certified, as well as being combined space rescue, high angle rescue, hazardous materials and EMS technicians. As a result, in order to keep current in all of these areas, they have to train constantly.”
In addition to their emergency response duties, POH firefighters are also charged with conducting seemingly endless inspections each month, including thousands of fire hydrants and fire extinguishers, as well as facility inspections.
“Their day is very busy. The firefighters’ morning begins when the senior captain sits down with the crew and maps out their day. They have to conduct apparatus checks and check their personal equipment everyday and there is a daily safety meeting. Of course, this schedule can change at any time,” Buck said.
Buck says the department will sell the three outgoing fireboats. The first two have already been put to bid and, once the third new fireboat is delivered, the final old vessel will follow suit.
Meanwhile, Buck says the POH Fire Department continues to engage in a great deal of mutual aid work on the ship channel and has established partnerships with a variety of entities, including the Houston Fire Department and the Galveston Fire Department, along with various communities located along the channel.