Long Beach fireboat Protector on her maiden voyage. Photo by John Konrad

Dear Admiral Kitchener: San Diego Urgently Needs A Fireboat

John Konrad
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July 27, 2021

It has been well over 200 years since the first fireboat proved her effectiveness, but when one of the U.S. Navy’s largest ships caught fire in the Navy’s most important port last year, there wasn’t a single fireboat available to help. 

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Last week at a media conference Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, the commander of US Navy warships, outlined the actions that have been taken since the Bonhomme Richard caught fire in San Diego last year… and he has completely missed the point. 

“We found that in some cases maybe we weren’t doing as well as we should have,” Kitchener told US Naval Institute editor Sam LaGrone. “We’re pretty good at firefighting at sea and all those procedures. When we got to the industrial environment, it was ‘OK, looks like we need to kind of make sure there’s a little bit of education.”

His solution? The Admiral and his team decided to “beef up the safety staff” and added a mix of civilian and military fire marshals to check ships on the waterfront and in the yard. He didn’t mention that crews did not have THE single most basic piece of equipment needed to fight large ship fires: a fireboat.

In 2014, for the protection of Long Beach’s harbor, Foss and Robert Allan, two of North America’s leading companies were commissioned to build a pair of new state-of-the-art fireboats for protecting the harbor.  The new multi-mission fireboats are very impressive and can help fight shipboard fires as well as assist with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. The boats also include facilities for medical treatment, a command information center, boom deployment to contain spills, and an onboard crane.

“We have to be prepared for any potential hazard,” said Port of Long Beach CEO Jon Slangerup at the time of launch. “They’re amazing, state-of-the-art machines that are essential for protecting the ships of today and tomorrow.”

These fireboats are impressive and so essential to protecting ships that Long Beach purchased them even though the next city north, Los Angeles, already had a state-of-the-art fireboat, and despite the fact, the construction cost for the two boats exceeded $50 million.

Long Beach is not alone. Nearly every large commercial harbor worldwide now has state-of-the-art fireboats on duty, but… the world’s largest US Naval Bases doesn’t own a single one.

It makes logical sense to build a $25 million fireboat when the replacement costs of new mega-ships like the Ever Given exceeds $115 million. Still, that cost pales in comparison to the costs to build a US Navy warship which can range from roughly $500-million-per-ship for a Littoral Combat Ship, to $8B for a Zumwalt class destroyer (two are stationed in San Diego), to $13B+ for a supercarrier. 

Naval Base San Diego is the principal homeport of the Pacific Fleet, consisting of over 50 ships and over 150 tenant commands. Yet the closest fireboat is stationed over 75 nautical miles away in Long Beach!

Let me repeat: San Diego has hundreds of billions of dollars of US taxpayer owed military facilities, ships, equipment, munitions, and hardware (not to mention several nuclear reactors) but NO dedicated fireboats. 

“One of the critical issues not addressed is to have large fleet tugs/salvage vessels or fireboats in San Diego & other major naval bases,” says the naval historian Dr. Sal Mercogliano. “One of the key issues was the inability to fight the fire off BHR’d fire mains. These crafts can connect to ships and charge their systems.”

According to Mercogliano, crews could not use the ship’s fire fighting system to fight the Bonhomme Richard fire. They had to drag hoses on board and provide water from a system that was not designed to support that flow. Eventually, one of the commercial tugboats was assigned the role of pumping to crews in the vessel, but it was called too late to save the ship. In April, it was announced that repairs would cost over $3B so the Navy will scrap the ship instead.

“The Navy learned this in 1942 after the loss of SS Normandie at the dock in Manhattan and USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea,” says Dr. Mercogliano.  “They commissioned several members of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) to teach fire fighting, introduce atomizing nozzles, outfitted rescue and salvage ships with portable pumps, and commissioned fireboats and fleet tugs to tow ships.”

Dr. Mercogliano is an expert in historic ship salvage, but you do not need a Ph.D. in Naval History to recognize the problem here. Every kid who has played with boats in the bathtub knows the life-saving advantages of fireboats. And this is the problem with the US Navy. They give speeches to journalists and politicians, and they write multi-page reports, but they miss the MOST BASIC CORE problems like the importance of basic ship-handling training and the need to station fireboats near multi-billion dollar floating objects.

It does not take a senate hearing, a feasibility study, or years of debate to conclude that fireboats save lives. All it takes is for Vice Admiral like Kitchener to publically admit the US Navy has made a grave mistake and ask our nation’s fireboat firemen for help… but… that might be too much for a three-star in what a recent senate report called America’s toxic zero-mistake navy.

Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener

Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, Commander US Naval Surface Forces

Editors Note

Vice Admiral Kitchener, I realize this approval process is difficult, but it is essential, so please purchase a fireboat right now. The lack of a fireboat at the Naval Base is not only an embarrassment but also a safety hazard to workers and residents of San Diego Harbor. It is a national security failure because it exposes critical warships worth tens of billions of dollars to unnecessary danger. 

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