You may have seen them. They ply the Hudson River, are painted red and white, and throw large arcs of water from their decks. Fireboats are specialized watercraft designed to fight fires on boats and waterfronts, but “the function of a fireboat is not one-dimensional,” Hoboken Fire Chief Anton Peskens said. “We use our fireboat for much more than firefighting.”
The first fireboat came to Hoboken three years ago with a Port Security Grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The Hoboken fireboat, Marina 1, is small, merely 26 feet and capable of pumping just 250 gallons of water per minute, but it meets the needs of the local fire department, which uses it to patrol the water, conduct search-and-rescue operations, and help distressed boaters.
“We patrolled on the 4th of July along with the rest of the area’s security departments,” said Captain Michael Stefano from the Hoboken Fire Department. “We patrol during special events, like when the band Mumford & Sons played a concert. We patrol all the time, especially during the summer. We simply have to with all the people on the waterfront.”
The most important job of the Hoboken fireboat is to save people from drowning. The firefighters have already saved a handful of people this year and not one has died on their watch.
“Just a few months ago we received a call from the police department,” Stefano said. “Someone was drowning at Pier A. We immediately went there and plucked him out of the water. After the job was done, we handed him over to the paramedics. That’s what we do. It’s just an everyday routine for us around here.”
To help with the firefighters’ search-and-rescue missions, Marina 1 is equipped with an engine camera that can detect heat under water. It alerts the firefighters when it detects an elevated temperature, making them aware that someone might be drowning. The advanced technology makes life a little easier for the Hoboken firefighters who want to maintain their perfect record.
Marina 1 is used almost every day, but rarely to fight fires. This is not at all uncommon; fireboats today are multi-purpose vessels. The National Fire Protection Association says the mission of fireboats has changed in the past couple of years, and that fireboats today must be equipped for a wide variety of emergency and nonemergency operations, such as water patrol, search-and-rescue operations, and assisting land-based firefighters during manmade and natural disasters.
All Hands on Deck
It was in the aftermath of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, that public safety officials realized the value of the fireboat. At the time there were only four active fireboats in the area; all belonged to the New York Fire Department’s Marine Division.
On 9/11 the water distribution system surrounding the Twin Towers had been destroyed, hampering the efforts of land-based firefighters. Luckily, fireboats pump water directly from the ocean, and five fireboats, the John McKean, Firefighter, Smoke II, Kevin C. Kane, as well as a retired FDNY fireboat, the legendary John J. Harvey, were called on to supply the land-based firefighters with water. The FDNY fireboats pumped water for five days straight, playing a vital role in extinguishing the massive fires at the World Trade Center site.
The John J. Harvey has been restored as a museum. It was built in 1931 and is still one of the most powerful fireboats ever in service, capable of pumping up to 18,000 gallons of water per minute. Docked at Pier 66 Maritime at 26th Street and the West Side Highway in Manhattan, the John J. Harvey now takes visitors on trips around Manhattan. Passengers can visit the engine room and experience the water cannons as they throw water from the deck. The John J. Harvey is a reminder of fireboats’ importance—past and present.
The Hoboken fireboat might be small in size and have a shorter history, but it serves the needs of the local fire department, and as Chief Peskens said, “We’re a small part of a very large waterway.”—07030