Why Marine Fire Fighting in California Matters

Historically, the incidence of fires aboard vessels near the coastline in California has been low, comparatively, to the total call for service volume of local fire service delivery. The irregular level of activity may have contributed to this false sense of security for firefighters charged with marine firefighting responsibility. Many local jurisdictions outside of California in the US have taken significant action to develop sophisticated program for the training of land-based firefighters in marine firefighting following the withdrawal of active mission support by the US Coast Guard in the 1980s. The failure of State Fire Training (SFT) to design and develop a modern curriculum for land-based firefighters to properly fight fires in the marine environment, and the implications of such following the seminal event involving the Santa Cruz/Conception dive boat fire suggest this can no longer be tolerated.

The fire service has historically accepted many duties involving disciplines outside of firefighting, perhaps due to the geographical distribution of fire stations across the landscape. This distribution permits a reduces travel time of trained people to the scene of an emergency following notification. Some of these duties are more recognizable such as emergency medical service (EMS), hazardous materials response (Haz-Mat) and perhaps Urban Search & Rescue (US&R). Other response activities are less known to the public, such as rope rescue, ice rescue, et al. Other duties such as Search & Rescue are a primary duty of law enforcement. Each of these common emergency activities are often accomplished by the fire service but are sometimes done by agencies, both public and private, outside of the fire service. This is understandable given that when a member of the public makes a request for emergency service a timely response from the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) is expected.

The development of firefighting training in California is the express duty of SFT, a division of the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Nature abhors a vacuum, and due to the failure of SFT to develop a comprehensive program for firefighting in the marine environment other disciplines have filled the gap with a marine firefighting program not approved by SFT and not developed by firefighters in what is one of the most dangerous of firefighting activities.

The US Constitution provides the states police power that enables each state the authority to provide for the health and safety of the public. In California the AHJ is given the explicit control of how this is accomplished in emergency situations under the Emergency Services Act. Further, each jurisdiction along the coastline in California extends a three mile boundary beyond the mean high tide line into the ocean or other open water such as a bay. This authority cannot be abdicated unless expressly done so by the AHJ. The duty and responsibility of a fire service agency along the California coast extends into the open water for three miles from the shore.

California law under the Harbors & Navigations code mandates that the local sheriff’s department maintain capability to provide aid and assistance to persons in the coastal waters, but does not provide for firefighting. This suggests that each local government agency along the coastline in California has a responsibility to the public to maintain some plan for marine firefighting within the three mile coastal zone.

California Occupational Health and Safety (Cal OSHA) stipulates that, in the workplace, workers must be provided with proper training and protective equipment for dangerous duties. The marine environment and vessel firefighting are unique as compared to land structural firefighting activities as there are numerous challenges found in the marine environment not found on land, i.e., confined space, redundant electrical systems, rotating mass below the waterline, large quantities of fuel, limited fire prevention regulations, et al. Taken in total is it clear that firefighting fire on a vessel away from the shore provides many challenges not found on land. Because land-based firefighters will provide the workers to fight a fire in the marine environment, and the lack of a SFT approved plan to train these firefighters currently exists, it is foreseeable that a Santa Cruz/Conception dive boat incident proximal to the coast would be devastating for the fire service as well as any victims.

I have been championing the idea that SFT develop a curriculum for firefighting in the marine environment for land-based firefighters for ten years. I ask that you schedule this idea for discussion at the Statewide Training Education and Advisory Committee (STEAC) as soon as reasonably possible so as to properly address this gap in the training of firefighters in the protection of the public.

A Need For Better Marine Fire Training

Although the Santa Cruz/Conception boat fire event likely progressed more rapidly than could have been mitigated due to a host of facts, this tragedy serves as a clarion call to governmental leaders for enhancements to the fire defensive posture by local/state government in California and State Fire Training/State Fire Marshal to develop a modern training curriculum for marine firefighting. This could be used as a platform for agencies tasked with legitimate jurisdictional authority for marine firefighting duties to begin to deploy adequate and capable resources needed for vessel fires so as to properly protect human life.

There are many governmental agencies that may hold authority regarding the design and standards of fire prevention relative to vessel construction. Any enhancements to the fire prevention leg of the protection of human life on the water is not likely to be realized in the near term. Recognize that a vessel inherently contains many of the firefighting challenges found on land, but all in the same space. A combustible building construction, confined space hazards, redundant electrical systems and filled with combustible and flammable liquids further complicate the firefighting operations challenge. When combined with high occupancy, limited routes of egress and no early warning audible alert the potential for disaster increases. 

The development of a standardized curriculum for marine firefighting in California is another critical leg in any plan to protect the public from the negative consequences of fire in a vessel on the water. The problem is that currently there is no curriculum developed or approved by California State Fire Training (SFT) for marine firefighting. However, a substandard curriculum was developed for marine firefighting by the California Department of Boating & Waterways, since relegated to a division of a parks agency, for this mission. The issue is that the aforementioned curriculum was designed by non-firefighters and is taught by persons unlikely to have experience in the subject.  Finally, under the Injury, Illness & Prevention program regarding training for employees involved in dangerous aspects of job tasks, there is a gap in what training is available in marine firefighting for any employee involved in such a practice.

Throughout the State of California there are a number of natural and man-made environments where large bodies of water meet the land and provide an opportunity for the harboring of a vessel on the water. This water environment becomes a more challenging firefighting activity when the structure is a vessel in water and not accessible to land based firefighters. This challenge is further complicated by the confluence of hazards contained in a vessel as well as boarding and the movement of waterborne craft in open water.  Other issues involve certifications from agencies outside of the fire service in the operation of a vessel, authority, jurisdiction and radio/communication issues.  The lack of a combined arms approach of law, fire, lifeguard add to the challenge.

The recent Santa Cruz/Conception dive boat fire/mass casualty incident speaks to the potential for known hazards found on board a vessel on the water. While this disaster was likely beyond what even a nearby fireboat could have mitigated a similar situation could be predicted near shore where an aggressive interior fire attack would be necessary for a favorable outcome.  

Without Warning



During the course of this past year the City of Newport Beach has taken three significant steps that serve to increase the risk to the residents and visitors of the communities that make up this city.

Initially, the urban search and rescue squad (US&R) was removed from service for undisclosed reasons. Following this action, the fire prevention division of the fire department was removed from the daily oversight of fire service professionals and placed in the community development department. Finally, the daily staffing of firefighters was reduced by three on the Balboa Peninsula, an area of the city that often experiences the lion’s share of public safety calls for service due to its proximity to the beach, alcohol serving establishments, and the nature of high density residential development.

Each of these actions has had a specific impact on the ability of the Newport Beach Fire Department to meet the service needs of the community. Taken in total, the combined impact of all three actions will potentially lead to negative and measurable influences in terms of response time and emergency incident capability, as well as long term impacts on the fire resistive nature and emergency response access to new building development.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) develops standards for issues related to community fire protection. These standards are consensus based by public and private entities and can be supported by data developed by recognized organizations. Several of these standards speak directly to the changes made in Newport Beach, and serve in a predictive nature to the influences such changes may have on the capability of the local fire and emergency defensive framework.

NFPA standard 1710 establishes the number of career firefighters committed to a fire company, i.e., engine, truck or other special service resource based on need. Often there are many issues that come into play when making this determination such as local policy, available funding, and Federal law relating to respiratory protection. Information on firefighter fire ground performance can be found in a study published by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Each of these publications speak to the benefit of having a minimum number of firefighters (staffing) on engine and truck companies to perform task level work in a timely fashion when operating at the scene of an emergency. When the City of Newport Beach reduced its daily staffing on the Balboa Peninsula, a first-due reporting district that includes many fire service challenges, such as a large regional hospital complex, numerous residential high rise occupancies, significant inland and boating waterways and a high traffic volume state arterial highway. All of these developments and infrastructure are emergency service challenges that correlate to the need for enhanced staffing on local fire department emergency service resources.

The removal of the fire prevention function from the stewardship of the chief of the fire department is specifically discouraged in an NFPA standard. Further, this was identified as a contributing factor noted in an independent investigation into the death of nine firefighters at the Super Sofa Furniture Store Fire in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007.

There has been no stated reason for these changes. Some have speculated that it is related to pension reform and the need to control the cost of providing service to the community. However, this idea is in contrast with the reality that during the same budget year the Newport Beach police department added six new employee positions. Another challenge to this theory is that the largest share of tax revenue in Newport Beach, property tax, has risen each year. This is especially true in the community of Newport Coast where property owners are subject to a greater percentage of taxation on assessed valuation, some of this specifically designated for fire protection service.

If there is a need to make these changes then it seems proper for those who control the levers of power to publish the decision and to provide context to the reasoning. The previous apparatus staffing levels and critical community resources survived the depths of the Great recession, so it appears that there other reasons for these changes than financial resources. Why punish the residents with a service reduction when economic times are on the upswing?

The outcome of these changes will be an increase in risk, illustrated by an increase in response time of specialized US&R resources from outside fire service jurisdictions based on availability. Additionally, the synergistic effect of staffing reductions and the decommissioning of the US&R squad will result in longer time-to-critical task completion at the scene of a fire, medical, or entanglement emergency. This additional time before a fire is suppressed, or a victim is rescued will be realized by a greater loss of property, as well as increased public and firefighter injury. While this is difficult to dispute, it can be challenging to measure.

One tenant of the fire service is that time is of the essence, and any action that serves to increase response time and resource capability should be carefully considered in an open and transparent fashion. This tenant is no less important in a City that prides itself on local government transparency.










Seal Beach Pier Fire


Seal Beach, CA May 20, 2016

The structure fire in an abandoned restaurant at the far end of the Seal Beach municipal pier illustrated the challenges and capabilities of fighting fire using vessel based pumping systems in Orange County. A review of the defensive firefighting operations from this uncontrolled fire in strong onshore winds demonstrates the value of adequate fire pumping capabilities from a fireboat platform necessary to limit property damage and public injury.

At 0735 on Friday May 20th, 2016, the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) responded to a fire in a restaurant at the end of a pier that is 1835 feet long. While the fire was declared under control at 0905, strong onshore winds fed hidden fire that led to a conflagration that consumed all adjacent structures. Pumping operations from numerous fireboats from the Long Beach Fire Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department-Harbor Patrol limited damage to the pier itself. Additional fireboats from the Los Angeles Fire Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department were requested during the expansion phase of the fire.

Several important lessons were learned from this event. First, the coordination and cooperation from the many agencies involved including federal, state and local government stems from proper preincident plans development. This is critical during an event that can potentially impact the coastal water environment in California. Further, the assistance provided by fire boats based in Los Angeles County reinforced a gap in capability by all fire agencies in Orange County and proved critical to the suppression effort. No Orange County fire service agency has a fireboat capable of pumping water on a fire. And, while some believe that there are too few boat fires and pier fires to expend the resources for a fireboat, the data suggest otherwise. Initially, consider the time, effort and expenditures expended to prepare for a wild land fire. Realistically, what is the wild land fire threat potential near the coast with higher humidity and near constant marine influence? Does it exist? Certainly. But so does the threat from a fire on the water as demonstrated in Seal Beach.

There are three harbors in the County of Orange: Dana Point Harbor, Huntington Harbor and Newport Harbor. Each of these is unique, but fundamentally they share a common challenge regarding fire protection. Fire suppression in the water environment is delivered by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department-Harbor Patrol (OCSD-HP) from fireboats deployed in the harbors, and not the local fire departments. Because this is not a required service, as determined by the county counsel in a report on the Harbor Patrol in 2010, the sustainability of this important protective service is subject to the support from the OCSD and not by legislative mandate. However, the initial and on-going fire suppression training given to the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies is not equal to the established standard of the fire service in California. OCSD-HP deputies are trained in a curriculum not vetted by State Fire Training. This is probably most problematic during offensive interior operations aboard a vessel when operating in a marginal situation. Proper training is essential and until this gap in training is addressed, the risk to the public is elevated.

Of the three Orange County harbors, the most significant fire suppression challenges are seen in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, but for different reasons. In Huntington Harbor, all boats are dockside and reachable by land-based firefighters unless underway. There are no offshore moorings in Huntington Harbor, however a unique challenge is the offshore oil platform Eureka. This platform lies in the near shore environment and within Huntington Beach city limits if you observe a three-mile mark from mean high tide. When the platform is operational this represents a potentially significant fire suppression challenge beyond the capability of the OCSD-HP and the local fire department. Another significant challenge is in Newport Beach. Newport Harbor has over 1200 public moorings beyond the reach of land-based fire fighters, as well as several areas of anchorage for larger vessels. Each of these moorings and anchorage sites potentially represent a floating residential condominium beyond the reach of land-based firefighters. Each of the vessels should be recognized as a complex structure that holds combustible and/or flammable liquid as operational fuel, as well as hazardous mechanical and electrical systems in a confined space environment. Together, these hazards pose a significant challenge for fire suppression actions for the local fire department in the form of resource deployment, training, and apparatus acquisition and deployment.

The challenge for Dana Point and Newport Harbor is that the fireboats that were available for the Seal Beach pier fire would have a much greater reflex time to reach the site of any similar fire suppression incident either Dana Point or Newport Harbor. The extended reflex, or travel time, would exacerbate the fire problem and increase the time before suppression actions were employed, leading to a larger fire and greater damage to property and the public. The fire in this scenario could develop beyond the capability of standard fire suppression tactics and potentially consume all available fuel in its path.

The likelihood that fireboats specifically designated to protect such a vital commercial port operation and national interest would be released from that primary duty and made available for something far from their primary duty in the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach is an open question that would be determined at the time of the event

Next Generation 911

Earlier this week I participated in a meeting of the Cal Chiefs legislative task force. I will focus on one issue that is both important as well as an interesting and complex component of the public safety business. The bill below speaks to the issue and it has a similar bill in the senate. I’ll attempt to condense the information into a discussion about Next Generation 911 (NG911).

A nationwide push resulted in a single three digit number (911) for use in emergencies across the Country to access a public safety system. When it came to fruition in the 1980s this resulted in more rapid communication to public emergency service providers. The reduction in what is now known as call processing time coincided with widespread deployment of paramedic services in the fire service, and enhanced care and treatment of the sick and injured. Additionally, the full spectrum of fire service and law enforcement service capabilities were enhanced with this improvement as well.

An improvement to the 911 access was E911, which provided the address location of the caller’s phone if for any number of reasons the caller was unable to provide this information. The lack of this important feature is illustrated in the 2008 killing of Juliana Redding at her home in Santa Monica by a contract murder-for-hire. While Juliana was able to dial 911 the call was ended by the killer before she was able to report the location during her struggle for life.

The E911 technology comes at a cost to both maintain and expand the system into new areas for systemwide coverage. The funds for maintenance and operation of this system was secured with a surcharge on each landline phone. Since the implementation of the 911 landline system there has been an exponential increase in the use of cellular phones, often at the cost of landline use. Consequently, most public safety answering points (PSAP) now report that at least half of the 911 callers access the 911 system using a cell phone. Because cellular technology does not provide an address, this information must be provided by the caller. This situation is reflective of the early 1980s prior to the E911 enhancement. More time is consumed in the informational acquisition component of call processing, resulting longer total response time by public safety resources for about half of the 911 requests for service.

In California, all cellular 911 calls are routed to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) by law. This can be modified via contract with the CHP if both parties are in agreement. However, the CHP holds the authority on this issue. Cellular towers near a freeway often are routed to the local CHP PSAP, and subsequently transferred to another PSAP if necessary based on the jurisdiction or discipline needed. At times, a cellular tower can become over loaded with activity and the next nearest available tower is accessed. However, this can result in a PSAP handling a call from many miles away and without knowledge of the streets or businesses reported by the caller, as this information may not be in the database of the terminal PSAP computer. Some of this was attempted to be resolved with the routing on empirical data (RED) project. However, this is a temporary solution.

The NG911 program is something that is expected to address the issues of a legacy 911 system in what is a technology driven world. It would attempt to provide access into the system for those who cannot speak, as well as texting and video uploading. Communication barriers are expected to be bridged as well. However, funding for this program is not sufficient at this time due to the reduction in landline use. Over time, legislation is proposed in an attempt to address many of these issues. However, it may be quite some time before the answer is realized.

The outcome of many of these 911 challenges is that a person who accesses the system using a cellular phone is providing the same information more than once, and that PSAP operators are are spending time transferring calls via voice. This is a time consuming process that results in an increase in call processing time. Currently, I believe that Cal Chiefs will look to a solution that more fully integrates CAD-to-CAD interface by standardizing the software so that when a call is sent from one PASP to another the need for voice communication is minimized.  This would achieve one of the most important objectives of call processing by reducing the time acquisition of critical information to the proper assignment of public safety resources.

–Paul Matheis