Protecting the America’s Cup

By George H. Potter

The America’s Cup is history’s oldest sports competition, dating from 1851 when the schooner Americasailed from New York to England in acceptance of a challenge by the Royal Yacht Squadron for a race between American and British sailing yachts. Some 10½ hours after the start, America crossed the finish line far ahead of the 15 British boats. Queen Victoria asked her naval attaché which boat was second. His reply has become world famous: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

This year, the 33rd edition of the world’s most famous yacht race was held off the Mediterranean coast of Valencia, Spain, as was the celebrated 32nd edition in 2007. The fundamental difference between the two events is that in 2007, 11 boats from nine countries participated in the elimination rounds to determine the final challenger against defender Alinghi of Switzerland. This year there was only one challenger year to face off against Alinghi, the BMW Oracle Racing Team’s USA. Both boats are totally atypical in regard to previous America’s Cup vessels: Both are 90 feet long by 90 feet wide multihulls, Alinghi is a catamaran (two hulls), whereas USAis a trimaran (three hulls). As sailing fans now well know, Larry Elisson’s USAhas brought the Auld Mug back to the USA after trouncing the Swiss team 2 – 0.
But the America’s Cup in not the only international sports competition of this magnitude held in Valencia. In June, the European Formula I Grand Prix was run through the port area on a street circuit not unlike Monte Carlo’s. (More on this later.)
Valencia is Spain’s third most populated municipality, with some 750,000 inhabitants, although the population of the greater municipal region surrounding the city nearly doubles that number. In the year 2004, when the Swiss billionaire Alberto Bertarelli, owner of Alinghi and winner of the Cup in 2003 over Black Magic of New Zealand, had to select an ocean (or sea) venue for the next edition, the port area of Valencia was a monstrous array of decaying warehouses and disarrayed docks. In fact, the Valencia Yacht Club was not considered a first-class yacht club at the time. The entire port area underwent an extensive renovation with new piers and docks, ramshackled buildings were torn down or remodeled, new streets were laid out, and a new port entrance was dredged. The multimillion dollar investment gave the city a totally new image.
One building that received not only a facelift but that also took on a new and vital role is Valencia Fire Brigade’s station. This structure is within the port area and has the primary mission of offering initial emergency response to the port facilities and ships moored in the port. Normally staffed by 10 firefighters and officers, the Port station houses two engines, one 100-foot aerial, a medium rescue truck, and two boats for water rescue in the port, and diver assistance. Six firefighters on every shift are qualified SCUBA divers specialized in off-shore deep water search and rescue . Since the port is one of the busiest commercial and industrial ports in the Mediterranean, thousands of tons of hazardous materials are handled in dozens of installations in and around the port.
The Port station also has first response responsibility for the America’s Cup Port installations, which are comprised of nearly 20 buildings ranging from some 20 more than 100-year-old warehouses to 15 high-tech lightweight sail lofts and Cup team bases, most of which are 50 to 80 feet high and contain several thousand square feet of interior open space. Although this year’s America’s Cup involved only two teams, several of the buildings within the complex were in full operation. It was estimated that some 200,000 spectators attended the two days of races and associated events, presenting numerous problems such as crowd control (involving possible mass-evacuation situations), accidental fires (because of great numbers of smokers), and potential water-rescue situations.
The Valencia Fire Brigade (or, translated from Spanish, Municipal Fire Extinction and Rescue Service) is a fully paid multiple-discipline fire department with a typical Spanish fire service structure: chief of department; three assistant chiefs for operations, fire prevention, and civil defense; a station chief for each of the brigade’s six stations; one shift sub-officer (equivalent to a captain) for each of the five duty shifts; and a multitude of driver/operators, crew chiefs (sub-officers such as lieutenants), firefighters, and administrative staff, totaling 550 people. The department also has 10 full-time Spanish equivalent EMTs (two per shift, staffing a medically equipped ambulance from the main station) and an internal medical department. Six stations are spread about the city, giving the brigade very acceptable response times. A new station is projected for the historic center of the city. Two of the department’s firefighters were members of the crew of the Spanish America’s Cup challenger in 2007 and qualified for the semifinals.
As for mobile apparatus, the department is very up-to-date with five engines less than five years old; three between five and 10 years old; and 15 older second-line reserve engines. The department has two 60-foot aerials, six 100-foot aerials, two 140-foot aerials; and one 160-foot articulated/telescopic aerial. In addition, three medium and heavy rescue trucks are strategically stationed; the department also runs other vehicles, including a mobile workshop, an air supply truck, a heavy hazmat trailer, and two mobile command centers.
Valencia is a dynamic city that serves as the capital of the three-province Autonomous Community of Valencia (similar to a state in the USA) and is one of the leading Mediterranean seaports for cargo and passenger cruise ships. The Valencia international airport is among the country’s 10 busiest facilities. The city is served by several long- and medium-distance rail lines, as well as local commuter trains, and an extensive subway system. At this time there are nearly 100 high-rise buildings in the city; more than a dozen are more than 25 stories, and three are more than 30 stories.
Two of the department’s sub-officers recently produced a computerized modeling simulator to study smoke movement in building fires and fire dynamics. This simulation was used extensively during the judicial investigation of the 32-story Windsor tower fire in Madrid in 2005. The simulator can be compared with similar programs used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other investigative bodies.
As stated earlier, the European Formula 1 Grand Prix is also held annually in Valencia, on a circuit laid out within the confines of the port. This event attracts thousands of spectators anxious to watch the Ferraris, MacLarens, BMWs, and the likes blasting around the 3,367-mile course at speeds nearing 180 miles per hour. When the circuit was being designed, someone remembered that it forms part of the port and a rotating bridge that passes over the boat access to the America’s Cup Port had to be incorporated. The Formula 1 event requires the mobilization of dozens of the city’s firefighters working in close liaison with fire protection specialists of the F1 organization. Having the Port station right beside the track greatly facilitates operations and resources.
The Valencia fire service also protects the Fallas, enormous papier-mâché figures that parody political, social, and similar activities that are burned during the several nights of the extremely popular event. Much to the National Fire Protection Association’s chagrin, tons of fireworks are set off during these days, and quite often very small children can be seen lighting firecrackers and similar items in the streets. The department again mobilizes nearly all off-duty firefighters to have details spread around the city.
George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association ASELF.