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The Guardians of the Bay
July 24, 2014 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Narrowly saved from the scrapyard just a few years earlier by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco's historic fireboat Phoenix has been credited with saving the Marina District from a blaze in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Following this heroic feat, two anonymous residents donated $300,000 towards the purchase of a second fireboat, Guardian, and a $50,000 gift from a Buddhist temple in the Marina funded her refurbishment. While Guardian's 1,200-mile journey from Vancouver did not go entirely smoothly, the crew arrived safely to a hero's welcome in San Francisco, including a water display from Phoenix. Now, with a recent vote, city supervisors have approved funding to build the city's first new fireboat in 60 years.

Both Phoenix and Guardian are still in active service and may be seen at Pier 22 1/2. As mascots of the Bay, they regularly lead parades, escort famous ships, and make a splash at special events such as the America's Cup and Fleet Week.
posted by annekate (18 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is written like the boats are characters in a "Cars" style adventure. I approve.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:05 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


What's there not to like about a fireboat? Saves lives and property, gives a convenient excuse for water parades. (Boston FD has three of 'em - and it's not in an earthquake zone. The Port of Providence has five, operated by four fire departments around the bay - much smaller vessels, tho.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:06 AM on July 24


Also, here's a 90's-licious Fireboats page maintained (updated just this week!) by the Cape Cod FD fan site, which is downright quaint.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:13 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Also, here's a 90's-licious Fireboats page maintained (updated just this week!) by the Cape Cod FD fan site, which is downright quaint.

Holy hell all this needs is a midi autoplaying
posted by dismas at 5:49 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


A typical fire truck has a single pump of 1000-1500 US gallons/minute capacity. In contrast, the Guardian has five single stage centrifugal pumps, each rated at 3,672 Imperial gallons/minute (18,360 imp gallons/minute total). That, my friends, is a lot of water. There may not be a lot of fires on the waterfront, but when there are there's no beating a fireboat for extinguishment capability.
posted by tommasz at 5:54 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I was working at a law firm in office services, making copies and sending faxes, on the 18th floor of the Russ building on Montgomery street in SF when the earthquake hit. The power went out but it was daylight still. Office phone systems use local power but the local telco supplies its own power. We kept one ancient fax machine, out of our very busy nine on the local telco so you could manually dial because fax machines dial the whole number at once which doesn't give international exchanges, especially those that don't have a cable, enough time to respond. Sending a fax to Palau was impossible without waiting for each exchange to "acknowledge" is I guess the right word.

So, EARTHQUAKE. As it struck I was going to go into the closet, close the door behind me, and die in the dark but then it was over. I picked up the aforementioned local telco phone and got a dial tone and I did what any right-thinking person would do in that situation, I called my Mom. She had been watching the World Series so had seen it immediately. She told me that part of the Bay Bridge was down.

I didn't have a frame of reference though. Some people in the building were freaked right out, some were laughing - which might be a version of freaked right out - everyone was leaving. I worked a shift till nine PM and I was sort of in charge after the boss left at five. Everyone asked if they could leave and I said OK.

It's hard to predict how people will respond. Cry, laugh, run, freeze - all are legitimate. A lady who I was working with and I decided to ascend the stairs to the roof of the Russ building fifteen floors above.

From our perch there we saw and heard every emergency vehicle in the city going somewhere and pillars of smoke coming from the Marina district.

It's weird to be in the middle of an emergency situation like that, you are the last one to know what is happening. Later I learned how much the fireboats helped. Fireboats are a good thing.
posted by vapidave at 5:55 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


A typical fire truck has a single pump of 1000-1500 US gallons/minute capacity. In contrast, the Guardian has five single stage centrifugal pumps, each rated at 3,672 Imperial gallons/minute (18,360 imp gallons/minute total). That, my friends, is a lot of water. There may not be a lot of fires on the waterfront, but when there are there's no beating a fireboat for extinguishment capability.

All that and Phoenix pumped for 15 continuous hours to beat the fires at the Marina. Something like 5 million gallons of seawater. Hard to imagine anything surviving that fire without her.
posted by annekate at 6:17 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


In contrast, the Guardian has five single stage centrifugal pumps, each rated at 3,672 Imperial gallons/minute (18,360 imp gallons/minute total)

For perspective, if I'm remembering my own family pool correctly, your average home swimming pool is around 30-35,000 gallons. So an entire swimming pool every 2 minutes. A lot of water
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 6:32 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


chicago's full size fireboat has it's own web page as well, The Christopher Wheatley.
posted by garlic at 8:41 AM on July 24


For a city surrounded by water and prone to catastrophic fires, fireboats are definitely a good thing. The issue is that they are very expensive to run the years you don't have a catastrophic fire and damage to water mains. It's really easy to say 80 years after the last huge earthquake "Do we *really* need to pay $2 million a year to maintain something we only use for public celebrations? We could do a lot to improve the emergency mains system with that money, and they reach a lot of the city that fireboats don't." When you look at the billions of property damage they can save when the shit goes down, and the fact that in San Francisco the shit *will* go down and even gravity mains are vulnerable to ground disruption, the numbers and logic still works out, but you really have to take the long view... or get reminders, like the Marina fire.
posted by tavella at 9:29 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Related: the John J. Harvey (previously) in New York. It had been retired and turned into a museum piece, but its pumps still worked (capable of 18,000 gallons per minute). After 9/11 the FDNY didn't have enough water pressure to fight the fires at the World Trade Center, so they reactivated the boat and were able to use it to pump water for 80 hours before the water mains could be restored.
posted by fremen at 10:22 AM on July 24 [7 favorites]


I never heard about that, how fascinating! Thanks for the link.
posted by annekate at 10:47 AM on July 24


Where are you getting that $2 million a year figure, tavella? If they bought the thing for 350K in 1990, it seems to me like they could just buy an entirely new boat every year for that kind of money. I suspect the upkeep is far, far less than that.
posted by axiom at 12:54 PM on July 24


From the Wikipedia page:
In the early 2000s, San Francisco spent $1.7 million each year to operate its two fireboats. Maintenance problems on the historic vessels increased to the point that Phoenix needed to be lifted into dry dock for extensive repairs to the hull.
I'm not sure there's a steady supply of retired 60-year old heavy-duty fireboats around, and it sounds like maintenance costs are significant. Probably why the city is spending $12M (!) on building a new, modern fireboat.

Also, I'd imagine the seven crew/firefighters dedicated to the boats are also a sizable chunk of operating expenses.
posted by annekate at 1:09 PM on July 24


I imagine having people who are trained as firemen AND sailors is definitely part of the cost as well as annekate says.
posted by Carillon at 1:14 PM on July 24


And those firefighters don't fight many fires per year, so it isn't as if you would have to add new land-based crews if you decommissioned the fireboats. They are absolutely invaluable when you do need them, but you can spend a whole lot of expensive time waiting for those rare catastrophes. And that is the kind of thing that is very tempting to cut when budget time comes around, and I am not talking about people being bad or greedy; you can do a lot of good things for your city with an extra $2 million.
posted by tavella at 1:25 PM on July 24


Note that they were able to buy the Guardian at scrap metal prices because it was awaiting cutting up at a shipwrecker yard. So that $350000 isn't any kind of realistic price for a replacement except in rare circumstances like that.
posted by tavella at 1:31 PM on July 24


Actually, checking the Guardian article, it looks like half of them dual-time on a land based engine, and only 3 are dedicated to the fireboats. But still, I expect those are relatively expensive high-skill employees.
posted by tavella at 3:01 PM on July 24


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