`The forgotten crew'

Fireboat: Waterborne firefighters, a vanishing breed in other cities, worry that they may be the next victims of continued city cuts.

April 11, 2001|By Neal Thompson | By Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

At Baltimore's quaint fireboat station -- one of the last of its kind on the East Coast -- the work is eclectic.

One day the firefighters are battling a warehouse conflagration; the next they're leading a parade of boats through the Inner Harbor.

And the crew still chuckles about rescuing the failed suicide jumper who leaped off the Hanover Street Bridge at low tide and got stuck in the mud.


But as the warming weather kicks off the fireboat's busy season, uncertain times are ahead for its crew.

In recent years, other waterfront cities have retired their fireboats or opted for part-time or on-call crews, leaving New York, Baltimore and Boston among the few U.S. cities with large fireboats and full-time crews. Baltimore's fireboat station, beside Fort McHenry, is the last of four that once dotted the Inner Harbor.

And now the National Park Service is eyeing the fireboat station and the federally owned land around it as a possible site for a new Fort McHenry visitors center. Some firefighters fear city officials will see it as an opportunity to get rid of their two decades-old fireboats -- and the crews.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who last year closed five fire stations, said it would be "dangerous" to eliminate the fireboat station, too.

"After all the closings last year, I said that's all I was doing," he said. "We need a fireboat. There's not a danger of [eliminating it]."

O'Malley did say one future option could be saving costs by staffing the fire station only at peak hours.

The station's crew of 32 -- eight firefighters working four shifts -- is sensitive to such suggestions. They say they are vital to protecting Baltimore's developing waterfront. But they also realize they're not the busiest of fire crews.

"These boats are expensive to operate, and a lot of people doubt the need for them," said Lt. Larry Heaps, a fireboat pilot. "Now, we're not called upon often, but when we are it's imperative. The waterfront of Baltimore is our responsibility."

A typical fire engine or ladder truck responds to at least a half-dozen fires, medic calls or false alarms each day. Some of the busier fire companies respond to more than 3,000 calls per year, and most medic units handle twice that number.

But the fireboat handles about two calls a week: an average of 97 calls a year over the past five years -- most during the summer. Its smaller sidekick, Fire Rescue 1 -- a speedboat used for medical emergencies -- handled an average of 113 calls a year in the past five years.

Both boats are busier than they used to be, though. The fireboat, for example, handled 61 calls in 1996 and 128 last year. Still, some of the calls have become more public relations than life-saving emergencies.

When the USS Constellation returned to Baltimore in 1999, the fireboat led the way with a showy arc of water. For the Preakness Weekend Schooner race that year, the fireboat welcomed the winner with a water-hose salute.

There are two fireboats, though only one is regularly manned. One is a 103-foot beast built in 1956 and named the Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.; the other is an equally large, 41-year-old backup boat, the Mayor J. Harold Grady.

Each has four water nozzles, called monitors, that can blast a stream of water powerful enough to knock down a brick wall. Last month, the fireboat saved a multimillion-dollar warehouse when it put out a pier fire.

"It would take [land-based] companies all day, and it took us an hour," Heaps said. "The Coast Guard has gotten out of the firefighting business. So having a large fireboat is really a feather in Baltimore's cap."

Fears of losing that feather were triggered by a letter last month to the Fire Department from the office of U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, which outlined the National Park Service's plans for a new visitors/education center for Fort McHenry.

The current visitors center is too small; it was designed in the 1960s for 250,000 annual visitors but now handles 700,000. Also, Fort McHenry is protected by federal "shrine" status, which prevents the visitors center from being used for social events. If a new center were constructed outside the fort's boundaries, it could be used for receptions and meetings. "And so our eyes fell on this piece of property just adjacent to the park," said Bailey E. Fine, Cardin's district director.

That land is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains a few offices and leases a small parcel to the Fire Department. The Army Corps is considering Cardin's request to relocate. And the Fire Department is compiling a list of requirements for moving the fireboat station elsewhere.

Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, the Fire Department spokesman, said the department is cooperating with Cardin, but has made no plans to relocate and is not entertaining any thoughts of dismantling or altering the fireboat crew.

"No one has suggested a move is imminent, nobody has looked into another location at this point and no one is questioning the value of a fireboat," he said.

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