While the average person might conjure up images of trucks and ladders when thinking about firefighting, San Francisco’s fire department can control blazes from the Bay with a pair of 1950s-era floating fire engines.
Traced in red paint and equipped with water cannons, the Phoenix and Guardian are two storied fireboats that can spew water onto burning boats in the San Francisco Bay or buildings along the waterfront.
While onboard the 85-foot long vessels, firefighters can rescue distressed swimmers in the Bay or recover the bodies of bridge jumpers.
Perhaps the fireboats’ most important function, however, is their ability to pump millions of gallons of water into The City’s backup firefighting systems. According to a celebrated story, retold by firefighters at Station 35 on a recent Thursday, that’s how the Phoenix saved the Marina in 1989.
When the Loma Prieta earthquake burst the domestic water lines beneath San Francisco, preventing firefighters from using water from normal fire hydrants, and a deadly blaze overtook part of the Marina, firefighters hooked up the Phoenix to a portable hydrant system.
Over some 17 hours, the Phoenix pumped more than a million gallons of water into the Marina through portable hydrants, which fed the water into the hands of firefighters through 5-inch hoses. The Marina was spared from destruction.
The San Francisco Fire Department has long sought a modernized fireboat to help protect The City from devastation similar to the earthquakes and fires of 1906 and 1989.
Next April, another fireboat is set to join the legendary ranks of the Phoenix and Guardian fireboats.
The still nameless vessel is under construction in Seattle, Wash., under the design of Jensen Maritime. It was scheduled for completion in late February, but production has been delayed three-to-four weeks if not longer, officials said.
A port security grant covered a majority of the $11.8 million for the state-of-the-art boat, customized for the fire department in particular, while grant funds from the Bay Area Urban Areas Security Initiative afforded about $400,000, Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi said.
Construction of the new boat has been delayed several times. At one point, the electrical subcontractor company working on it went bankrupt. Now that production is back on track, the question remains as to whether three fireboats are needed, and if The City can afford to pay for the upkeep of all three.
Deputy Chief of Administration Raymond Guzman told Fire Commissioners at a meeting in late October that the department may need to decommission one of the boats. “At this point we’re going to have three fireboats for a while and we still need to determine whether we’re going to keep two or three,” he said.
Lombardi told the San Francisco Examiner the third vessel is needed. San Francisco is the only city in Northern California to operate fireboats of the Phoenix and Guardian caliber, he said, which makes sense for a city surrounded by water.
“One of the challenges that we have is we’re allotted a certain amount of money for upkeep from the port,” Guzman said. “Because the vessel is new initially it won’t cost a lot of money for upkeep. But as the years keep clicking along it may require that so we may not be able to keep three vessels.”
The Port of San Francisco pays some $300,000 each year to maintain both boats, Lombardi said. “Just because we have three boats doesn’t mean it costs the taxpayers a lot more money,” he said.
There’s only one boat in service at a time. While the Guardian is docked behind Fire Station 35 at Pier 23½ at present, the Phoenix is in drydock elsewhere.
That means taxpayers aren’t paying for another crew even though The City will have a third boat. Three boats would only be in service at the same time during an emergency. “The two boats we have are at least 65 years old,” Lombardi said. “It’s just time that we have a new boat.”
While costs may become a concern, Lombardi told commissioners in late October that there will be no issue of where the boats are going to be stored. The fire department plans to line them up along Pier 26, which is adjacent to Pier 23½.
“We’re in current contract to redo the whole side of Pier 26,” Lombardi said. “Our people would stay in Firehouse 35, and our boats would be parked at Pier 26. That will be done before we get the new fireboats.”
The City is growing, with new developments at places like Mission Bay and Hunters Point, and with it the possibility that multiple fires can break out at once, Lombardi said. “These are all areas that the boat would respond to if this were an emergency incident,” he said.
The fireboats are like floating fire engines and can pump water into portable hydrants or high-pressure water pipes. Portable hydrants are connected by above ground fire hoses that can be draped across The City for up to a mile, Lombardi said.
The latter system, known as the Auxiliary Water Supply System, is unique and renowned. Installed in 1908, Lombardi said people come from all over the nation to learn from it. “We’re the only city in the United States with it,” he said.
The high-pressure system utilizes San Francisco’s hills and gravity to send water from three reservoirs, including a 10.5 million gallon tank atop Twin Peaks, through pipes and into hydrants in certain areas of The City.
It’s used as a backup in cases of emergency, but also when there’s a high demand for water. Firefighters tapped into the system last year when it took an estimated 7 million gallons of water to control the massive construction site fire in Mission Bay, Lombardi said.
While the fireboats weren’t called into action during the Mission Bay fire, they can be used to refill the high-pressure system when it runs low on water, Lombardi said.
Lt. Andy Sobozinsky, an officer on the fireboat crew of four other firefighters, a pilot and an engineer, said one recent highlight when a fireboat was used to fight a fire was in Islais Creek. The pier caught and the boat was called in to spew water onto the flames.
Sobozinsky, who has been on the fireboat crew since 2010, was a firefighter in training when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. “We were all assembled in the training academy ready to go home for the day,” he said.
Unaware of the severe damage caused by the quake and ensuing fires, he was sent home. The next day, Sobozinsky found himself lifting hoses in the Marina district as the Phoenix docked nearby.
Little did he know that more than 25 years later, he’d be part of the boat’s crew.