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.

Without Warning

 

FullSizeRender

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

IMG_3199

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