There is a common misperception that fireboats will respond to a marine fire and fight your shipboard fire for you. Many departments place a fireboat on their alarm cards (whether theirs or mutual aid) for shipboard fires and think that they have resolved the issue. Some fully expect that the fireboat and crew will arrive on scene and begin an aggressive attack on the fire and perhaps even assume operational control of the fire. Would you expect that from an Engine Company responding to your fire? Of course not, unless they are first due and must initiate operations. Fireboats are unlikely to be first on scene unless the fire is on a vessel underway or at anchor. They are just one unit that is part of an overall strategy to gain the upper hand on the incident. An Engine Company, Ladder Company or a Marine Company will provide what specialized support that they are trained for to support your operations. A fireboat should be considered a floating engine company (unless you're in LA where you have a tower on it!) that can only perform the tasks they are trained and equipped for. The fireboat's crew (if they have a dedicated one) is often responsible just for the safe operation and navigation of the vessel. Sometimes an Engine Company or other unit may be detailed for the response, but unless they have specialized training, they are probably there for manpower and will have limited roles in direct firefighting operations.
When do you call for one?
The sooner the better! Fireboats often take time to staff, get underway and transit to the scene. This will create a frustrating delay in operations for the Incident Commander if the boat is needed for the planned operation. You can always return the boat if it is not needed, however if you haven't called for it, then you definitely can't use it's capabilities. We recommend that you place them on the initial dispatch. Shipboard fires are not that frequent and this should not create an unusually difficult burden on the crews. In addition, most shipboard fires are significant since the crews rarely call the fire department until they have given up and it has exceeded their capabilities.
What training do they have?
Many fireboat crews do not have specialized training on shipboard firefighting. They may have special expertise on marine and fireboat operations, but many department SOG's require the fireboat's crew to remain on board unless they are dealing with a small boat fire.
Who should be trained in Marine Firefighting?
Fireboat crews should certainly have training in Marine Firefighting. This will better enable them to effectively support shipboard firefighting operations. First due companies to the waterfront should certainly be trained to respond to this type of hazard in their local. Their initial response (just like in any fire) could make or break you operations. If they are aware of the initial actions that should be accomplished (like obtaining the ship's fireplan), they may make operations more effective later. Depending on the size of the department, you may wish to any special operations or other personnel that have technical rescue, hazardous material and confined space training trained to higher levels of capability to make you training requirements manageable. Any personnel that are expected to respond on board a vessel should have at least an Awareness level of training.
While you're adding those fireboats to your response cards, don't forget a rescue boat or two. Let's not forget about RIT or FAST teams on the water! How will you respond if one of your firefighters falls off the vessel or pier wearing full turnout gear and SCBA? Chances are you aren't gong to be able to just pull them out. If you don't have a rescue boat on scene, you may not be able to recover them before hyperthermia sets in the winter. Even a fireboat may have a free-board so high that they may not be able to effect rescue. In addition to the rescue boats, a rescue plan should be initiated to ensure we protect our personnel from the water hazards. This should include a waterside division of your RIT/FAST branch including personnel with throw bags, flotation devices, etc... and communications with waterborne assets. Until a dedicated marine unit can arrive, a firefighter with a radio in a police or Coast Guard boat can be very effective.