Marine Firefighting: From "How High's the Water, Mama" to "Mark Twain"

By Tom Guldner

Last year record floods shut down sections of the Mississippi and other inland waterways because of excessive currents and the rivers overrunning their banks. The lyric "How High's the Water, Mama" by Johnny Cash could have been sung in any of the towns, villages, and hamlets along inland rivers.

This year, the phrase that most barge and tow boat1 operators would like to hear is "mark twain"--not the iconic author of Tom Sawyer, but rather a river depth measurement from the steamboat era. A crewmember would drop a weighted "lead line2" attached to a rope and yell out the depth under the boat to the pilot of the steamboat. The term "mark twain" designated a depth of two fathoms or 12 feet.

With this year's drought, 12 feet is just a dream. The water level in our inland waterways has decreased to nine feet and may be going lower. This reduction has, at times, caused the tow boat and barge industry to reduce the barge loads to half and also to reduce the number of barges in a tow (for every foot less in draft, the barge load must be reduced by 200 tons.)  The American Waterways Operators (AWO) estimates that losing one foot of draft forces vessel operators to lighten the loads by 204 tons of cargo capacity per barge.

"When you consider that a typical tow on the Mississippi or Ohio River has 15 barges, a one-foot loss of draft will decrease the capacity of that tow by 3,000 tons," explained Ann McCulloch, director of public affairs at AWO. "The larger tows on the lower Mississippi that would normally be pushing 40 to 45 barges are now only pushing 25 to 30."

This reduction has not only caused hardships to the barge industry but also threatens the economy of our entire nation at one of the worst economic times in recent memory. The cost of food products, livestock feed, seeds and fertilizers for next year's crops and the raw materials needed for everything from our cars to the fuel we put in those cars will increase. This will put a substantial crimp in our economic recovery.

THE PROBLEM WITH LOW WATER

But I'm involved in marine firefighting! What does all this have to do with fires and emergencies on the water?

You would think that fewer barges and barges with only half loads would lessen the number of incidents and make the job of first responders easier, but in reality he low water makes the job of piloting the "tows" (as groups of barges pushed by a tow boat are called3)  much more dangerous. Channels are made much narrower and submerged objects that were of a minor concern before may now rip open the bottom of the tows passing over them, causing pollution and fire. Private boaters are also subject to the new dangers of low water and may be involved in more accidents and fires. Local first responders will be called out for these in increasing numbers.

Low water affects river emergency operations in many ways. Just consider access. Many small towns have fire/rescue boats on trailers which must be launched in response to an emergency. With the water level this low, the boat ramps used for launching these vessels lead to mud rather than water. First responders will be sent scrambling to find locations where they can launch their boats, if there are any. Fire and police boats that are kept in a marina or at a dock my not fare any better. Many marinas are sitting high and dry with boats stuck in the mud.

One method of fighting a fire on a barge is to have the tow head into the shore and hold itself there with forward power from the tow boat4. Fire departments are then be able to drive their truck on the shore close to the scene and board the barge with a portable ladder from the shore. In low-water conditions, the barges would ground themselves so far from the shore that firefighters could not be able reach them through the mud.

Low water may also eventually cause the closing of some of the many locks along our waterways. First responders who would normally use the lock to reach parts of their normal response area or mutual aid areas by boat will now be "locked-in." If possible, you may be able to take your small fire/rescue boats on a trailer past the lock, but this will greatly add to response times and the severity of the fire once you do arrive.

Many fire departments may be relying on drafting for firefighting water on or near the water's edge and in marinas. With the water level down, these drafting sites may not be usable, and any preexisting fixed drafting tubes may now not extend into the water. Other water supply sources must be found, but they may require long hose stretches, which will can also greatly delay operations and allow fires to increase in intensity.

There are measures being considered to alleviate some of the problems facing the tow boat industry. The Army Corps of Engineers has blasted an area of pinnacles or rocky outcroppings that were causing a dangerous condition in certain areas of the Mississippi River. There is also some discussion about releasing additional water from the Missouri River watersheds, but this is very controversial as the areas affected along the Missouri River are also undergoing a drought of their own.

So what is the answer? We can't stop Mother Nature. If you have prepared a prefire plan for your area of the waterway, you may have already considered the problems of both low and high water. Unfortunately, many prefire plans are created when the conditions are ideal and don't take into consideration seasonal changes which may affect operations. Prefire plans must be prepared to include all expected changes which may affect operations in your area (As an example marinas should be checked in season and then again off season). The same should apply to any areas along waterways where operational conditions can be affected by weather and seasonal conditions. Remember, many of the areas of concern that are needed to be addressed in your size-up may also apply in your prefire plans so that it will address the seasonal changes for your area and climate. Remember the size-up acronym "COAL WAS WEALTH":

  • CONSTRUCTION
  • OCCUPANCY
  • APPARATUS
  • LIFE HAZARD
  • WATER SUPPLY
  • AUXILIARY APPLIANCES
  • STREET CONDITIONS
  • WEATHER
  • EXPOSURES
  • AREA
  • TIME
  • LOCATION
  • HEIGHT

If any of these areas can be affected by seasonal weather changes then you initial prefire plan may need to be amended to include changes to operations and response during those times.

Don't get caught short. We in the fire service need to start acting instead of reacting.

More recently, low-water conditions were starting to be corrected by increased rainfall, but don't let that stop you from preparing for weather-related water level problems along our inland waterways. Prefire plan for both high- and low-water problems now so you will be prepared when it happens.

ENDNOTES

(1) The term "tow boat" can be confusing as the tow boat on our inland waterway usually "pushes" a group of barges. The tow boat and barges make up what is known as a "tow".

(2) Sounding was originally done by hand with sounding poles or a weighted lead line (or sounding line) when measuring greater depths. For more information, search the Internet for "depth sounding."

(3) "Drought means less cargo, fewer barges and higher costs for towboat operators," Professional Mariner (December-January 2013)

(4) Ibid.

Tom GuldnerTom Guldner is a retired Lieutenant of the Fire Department of New York's Marine Division. Tom held a U.S. Coast Guard License as a ships master and is certified as a fire instructor both in New York State and nationally. He is currently a participating member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) fishing vessel operations and safety panel and also small working vessel operations and safety panel. Tom is also a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association technical cmmittee on merchant vessels. His articles on marine firefighting have been published both nationally and internationally. Learn more at www.marinefirefighting.com or e-mail Tom at MarineFires@aol.com.

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