Fireboats: A Century of Development

Fireboats: A Century of Development

Featuring an elevating platform, the Toronto Fire Department’s William Lyon Mackenzie throws multiple streams on a ship fire.

From steam tugs to big diesel-electrics, tide turns to more compact, faster craft

Photo courtesy Toronto Fire Department

As early as 100 years ago, in the age of the hand engine, fire fighters thought it to be a good idea to put a pump oil a boat to fight harbor fires. Since then, and despite the high cost, the important attributes of “seaward” access and unlimited water supplies have given the fireboat an important place in the fire services of our port cities. In form, they have evolved from the land engines placed on barges, through pump-equipped tugboats, to the efficient compact unit being produced in the post-war renaissance of fireboat design.

Fireboat design has been keeping pace with the development of the fire service in general. And new fields of operation in water rescue and marina protection are extending the floating fire services’ activity into the small boat field.

The first floating engines were hand engines placed on barges sometime in the middle 1800’s. On the Thames in London in 1885 they were replaced by a steamer for the first time.

Boston lays claim to the first real fireboat, the Wm. F. Flanders, put in service in 1873. It was a steam tug with vertical piston pumps by Amoskeag, the famous steam fire engine builders. Its capacity was 2000 gpm and it was owned and operated by the city.

In 1886 New York had a salvage tug with a fire pump on stand-by retainer and nine years later placed in service its first full-time harbor fire fighter, the 106-foot wooden tug Wm. F. Havemeyer. This boat had four Amoskeag vertical duplex piston pumps producing 6000 gpm. It was a coal-burner, and the crew lived aboard. The New York and Brooklyn Fire Departments, respectively, developed fleets of six and two of this type of fire tug. The new York Fire Department’s Zopher Mills, built in 1882, was the last to have full crew accommodations aboard and had the largest piston pumper built, rated at 15,300 gpm at 150 psi.

Shallow draff steamer

Chicago joined the fireboat owners in 1888 with a wooden 3000-gpm steamboat. The Fire Queen, a shallowdraft boat built to ply the lagoons of the Columbian Exhibition, was taken over by the city after the big show closed. Chicago had five boats by the turn of the century.

The early fireboats were usually equipped with a number of deck and superstructure monitors, but none had tower-mounted streams. Edward Croker, a famous New York chief, was a fireboat enthusiast and introduced numerous improvements, including steam turbines to drive pumps, larger monitors, ample open deck space clear of obstructions, and the tower nozzle mounted aft. John Kenlon, later chief, was a captain and pilot.

In the period from about 1910 to 1920, many other ports from Seattle to Philadelphia acquired boats that incorporated such contempory refinements as oil-firing, turbine-driven pumps and turbo-electric power.

The original Joseph Medill of Chicago was the first with turbo-electric drive for its propulsion and pumping. The Medill had dredge-style mooring spuds to hold the boat steady while operating streams, as did her 1913 sister ship, the Graeme Stewart, which is, incidentally, still operating today as a salvage tug on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The internal combustion engine came into the picture in the mid-20’s with gasoline engines in the three Portland, Ore., boats, the Los Angeles boats, and Seattle’s Alki, although San Diego started it with the homemade Bill Kettner in 1918. The Kettner had three engines, one for propulsion, two for pumping. The Portland had two and four, and the Los Angeles No. 2 used seven engines turning out 2100 hp and had six pumps good for 10,200 gpm at 200 psi. The Alki had seven 350-hp engines and pumped 12,000 gpm.

The biggest of the gasoline-engined boats was New York’s John J. Harvey, built in 1930 at a cost of about $600,000. Using the flexible electric power then popular in New York, five engines drove 340 kilowatt generators. Propulsion was by electric motors on the twin screws and pumping was by four electric pumps, giving a total of 16,000 gpm.

Houston, on the other hand, used diesel-electric power on its 1925-built vessel and used the first direct wheelhouse control of engines.

Infernal combustion engine

The introduction of the internal combustion engine, particularly the compact, high-speed diesel, leveled off the bigger and bigger trend of fireboat construction. The boat built for Portland, Maine, in 1931 to a design of John Alden of Boston was considered a landmark among fireboats. This boat was 90 feet long and developed 6000 gpm at 150 psi. She was equipped with two monitors and a mast nozzle. The five engines, totaling 1400 hp, were arranged so that two drove either pumps or propulsion screws via clutches, one drove a third screw to provide propulsion while all pumps were operating, and two engines drove only pumps.

Chicago’s Basse, Medill and Schlager follow this general style, but in a low-silhouette especially designed for canal work. Their height was only 15 feet so that they could pass under bridges. A telescoping monitor tower could extend to 26 feet. For the severe winter climate, hulls reinforced for ice and heated sea chests for pump suction were provided. The newer Aledill and Schlager were fitted with four twin diesels, all of which could pump while two also could propel the boat.

Following its “electric power for flexibility” policy, New York brought into service in 1938 the biggest and most famous fireboat of all. The 132foot Fire Fighter, designed by Gibbs and Cox, architects of the S.S. United States, is powered by two 1500-hp, 900 kw diesel generating sets. The power is utilized by two 1000 hp electric motors to propel the big vessel and four 600 hp electric-driven two-stage pumps, producing 20,000 gpm. A hinged tower raises an elevated stream to a height of 55 feet. Eight big monitors produce streams of up to 8500 gpm. A motorboat with a portable pump is also carried. It seems unlikely that this boat, costly to build and maintain today, will be suipassed in size, or even approached, unless the oft-suggested deep-sea fireboat comes to pass.

The war brought forth some service fireboat designs such as the 40-foot shallow-draft Coast Guard boats of 2000 gpm and the effective little 3600-gpm boats still serving the Canadian Navy. Skid-mount pumps on landing craft and other makeshifts made-do for military expediency in a variety of situations.


By the end of the war, many original boats were becoming outdated, but their hulls were still sound, and a retread program has given many of them a new lease on life. Steam power was replaced by diesel-electric in the Duwamish of Seattle, raising its capacity by a third, and in the powerful rebuilt Buffalo boat.

Gasoline power, still favored in some cases because of its lower initial cost, has the tricky hazard of its fuel to be considered. In recent years, the trend has been to replace it with diesel power.

Of the two powerful steam fireboats James Elliot and James Battle, placed in service by Detroit about 1900, the former was replaced long ago, but the Battle is still going strong after a checkered career. Her reciprocating pumps were replaced with diesel-driven land apparatus pumps for a capacity of 7200 gpm in 1936. Retired for a time, she later saw duty in the busy convoy port of Halifax during the war, after which a diesel propulsion engine was installed. The Battle now operates as a harbor and river tug on the St. Lawrence, but like an old fire horse, still goes into action with her pumps at waterfront fires in Montreal, which has no regular fireboat.

Post-war developments have seen the use of converted wartime boats such as the two small ex-Coast Guard units utilized by Newark before the 1964 acquisition of the fine John F. Kennedy. Finding sufficient space for pumps and equipment is a problem in conversions, but good results were obtained in Boston with two minesweepers converted in 1949. Although of wooden construction, they have provided good and economical service with their 7000-gpm capacities. San Diego replaced the venerable Kcttner with a Navy tug purchased for $300. Another $20,000 transformed it into the 4000-gpm Louis Almgren, now operating as running mate to the new Shelter Island, a light, fast boat adapted to marina protection.

The new breed

Present-day fireboat construction reflects modern technology and efficiency in both the traditional large boat, with its heavy hitting power for major shipping installations, and the small fast, shallow-draft boat being used by an increasing number of fire departments. The latter are providing protection for the burgeoning recreational boating installations and extending wide-ranging fire department rescue and emergency service into an amphibious operation.

Typical of specifications for recent big boats in New York is a 105-foot, 13-mph vessel propelled by two 500hp diesels through reduction gears to controllable pitch propellers for maneuverability. Pumping is by two 500hp diesels driving 2-stage, 4000-gpm pumps. This setup is a departure from the costly but flexible electric drive.

In 1960 Baltimore replaced two steamers and a World War I diesel boat with three new 85-foot vessels featuring variable pitch propellers producing 15-mph speed and the unusual power plant of a single 880-hp diesel engine. When driving the two pumps to produce 6000 gpm at 150 psi, sufficient power still is available for maneuvering. Three 3000-gpm monitors, two discharge manifolds and a 1000gallon foam liquid tank are provided. These boats cost about $350,000 each and carry a crew of eight.

Vancouver, B.G., with two harbors to protect, operates an older gasolinepowered boat on False Creek and, in 1951, replaced two landing craft carrying skid-mount pumps with a single large boat to cover the main harbor. This boat delivers 18,000 gpm from its five gasoline-driven singlestage pumps. Two of these engines are also geared to the two propulsion screws. Like the two Seattle boats, the William Lyon Mackenzie in Toronto, Los Angeles No. 4, and others, the Vancouver boat is fitted with remotecontrolled underwater jets for maneuvering and holding position against stream reaction while pumping.

Elevating platform

The Toronto Fire Department’s boat, one of the newest, is interesting in its installation of a 54-foot elevating platform. Full wheelhouse control includes the platform and the monitor mounted on the wheelhouse top. Two 600-hp diesel engines are clutch-connected to the 3500 Igpm pumps or to the propeller shafts. When pumping, maneuvering is by underwater hydraulic jets and by hydraulic motors coupled to the shafts. Two 36-kw diesel generators supply single and three-phase 117-volt electrical service. Foam is also carried. This boat is rated for ice navigation.

Typifying the lighter modern boats are those of Newark and San Diego. They are of modest size (46 and 36 feet) and capable of fast response and navigation in shallow waters. The Shelter Island of San Diego will do 20 knots, pump 3000 gpm and cost $77,000. Her principal job is protection of extensive fishing and pleasure boat fleets. Newark’s John F. Kennedy was designed with sea chests that can be flushed of debris, thick bow plates and propellers in tunnels for the shoal waters in which it operates. Pittsburgh’s C. D. Skully will do 28 mph, a considerable speed for a boat capable of 5000-gpm pumping.

At the smallest end of the scale, the jet-pump-propelled fiberglass runabout is filling a need for high-speed response to perform rescues and fight fires in marinas and minor waterways. Chicago operates several of these capable of 45 mph anti delivering 2500 gpm at low heads. They are normally manned by three scuba-trained fire fighters. A useful function of such boats is feeding water to land pumpers which cannot get close enough to the waterway to draft.

Among overseas boats, the Firemaster of the British Petroleum Company in Swansea, Wales, is interesting. Consisting essentially of a tower full of monitors mounted on twin hulls (catamaran) it is specialized for fighting oil tanker fires with foam. Propulsion is by outboard-type engines with retractable propellers. Steering like outboards, these give great maneuverability and dry-docking is not required for propeller inspection. British fireboats are of small capacity, usually 2000 gpm, although the St. Mungo of Glasgow is rated at 6000 Imperial gallons. Fireboat 39 of Southampton is fitted to transmit power to its twin screws byway of variable-scoop-type hydraulic couplings. These permit the two 230-hp engines to operate their pumps at full speed while variable amounts of power are bled off for maneuvering as desired.

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The fire fighting equipment carried on fireboats varies greatly, particularly with the size of the vessel. Small boats depend on picking up any special tools needed from land companies, while the big boats may be completely fitted with small tools; hose; portable lighting; power tools, fixed and portable; foam-generating appliances; and breathing apparatus. Hook ladders for scaling ships’ sides, portable fire pumps, dewatering or salvage pumps, acetylene torches, extra air bottles for breathing apparatus and a punt or motorboat are among the special items needed. The NFPA booklet entitled “Fireboats” lists recommended equipment.

Large boats normally carry in the neighborhood of 1000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose on a reel or flaked in a waterproof box. Often 3 1/2-inch hose is similarly provided for supplying heavy streams ashore. Some 1 1/2-inch hose is required for small stream work, even the smallest outboard-powered launches normally carrying 100 feet or more for use with portable pumps.

The development of scuba fire fighting in some fire departments for fire under wharves has produced some ingenious equipment and techniques, with float-mounted nozzles and hose showing promise.

The future

We have seen the fireboat evolve from a pump-equipped tug in the large seaport to a power-packed, specialized, seaborne fire engine, varying in size and design to suit a variety of conditions. In general, a median pumping capacity for big boats seems to have been arrived at in the area of 6000 to 8000 gpm; the A.I.A. Grading Schedule calls for one-half of the required fire flow for the dock area. A key question in design centers around the problem of pumping while continuing to maneuver the vessel, because of the economy of using propulsion engines for pumping, a variety of power couplings and auxiliary maneuvering methods have been tried, some of them rather complicated. Because of the lack of substitute boats and the great investment involved, it should be basic, except in the smallest boats, that there be not less than two independent pumping units and two propulsion engines. With one engine out of service, partial service may thus be maintained.

Boats like the William Lyon Mackenzie of Toronto, Newark’s John F. Kennedy and the Shelter Island of San Diego might be considered as typical of the present trends in fireboat design. Compact boats featuring flexibility through modern drives with highspeed diesels, bridge control of all functions, variable pitch propellers, Kort-nozzle steering and perhaps more elevating platform-style towers will be the vogue.

The fire fighting problems vary of course. The older salt water ports have many open-piling piers with tide-deposited oil coatings, poor access, and congested warehouses exposed to the dock area. Some newer ports, on the other hand, have no combustible wharves or underpier problems. In Montreal, any fireboat would require the maximum capacity in elevated streams, since all the solid-concrete piers are around 30 feet above normal water level and many of the pier sheds are two stories.

Technology shapes future

Fireboat trends will depend upon the developments in fire fighting generally. High-expansion foam seems likely to have a significant future in shipboard fire fighting, for example. Cargo hold fires in ships may often be best controlled with carbon dioxide, but a fireboat cannot carry the large quantities normally required for a freighter’s hold. Possibly inert gas generators will soon be carried to serve the same function. The likely future use of gas turbines for propulsion and pumping power suggests the possibility of their use as inert gas generators as well.

Fireboats have been hard for fire departments to justify before their city authorities. The high cost of construction, maintenance and manning as opposed to their frequency of use has brought them the label of “white elephant” in between the occasional big fires where they earn their keep. Surprisingly, the use of dual-purpose fireboat-tugboats has not been widely adopted, although many monitorequipped tugs assist at fires.

Greater utilization of fireboats is achieved by many departments by extending their fire fighting range inland with the use of boat tenders carrying big hose for fireboat mains.

While rising costs might have caused a decline in the nation’s fireboat roster since the war, their usefulness, the rapid growth of ports and recreational boating, as well as improved technology, have evidently assured the continued expansion of the fleet.

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