Several fire departments from around the Kenai Peninsula and elsewhere in the state descended upon Homer over the weekend. Volunteers and paid firefighters from 14 departments participated in Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Board’s marine firefighting symposium. After two days of classroom training and small exercises, firefighters got their chance to put it all together and fight a fake boat fire.
Early on a chilly Sunday morning in Homer’s harbor, several firefighters are sweating as they gear up to fight a pretend fire on a large vessel tied up at the dock. Teams near the gangway are unraveling hoses off the back of a Homer fire truck as another relays information from the vessel.
“Made contact with the boat owner, the boat is open, occupied at the moment. We do have one victim inside unaccounted for,” a team leader radioed up to the fire truck.
Teams drag hundreds of feet of hose along the dock before finally reaching the boat. One instructor acting as the boat owner tells one team captain the main entrance is too hot to enter.
“The boat is gutted, there’s no power, there’s no fire protection. You can’t get down to the engine room through the main access. I just opened this thing up and it’s cooking in there,” he said.
With air tanks on their backs, firefighters enter a small hatch to search for the lost crewmember. Instructors have smoked up the vessel to simulate low visibility as teams drag hoses through its narrow hallways.
After the first team finds the victim, the next is already on deck.
Valdez volunteer firefighter Eric Garcia was among the first team to search the boat and double-checked each step as he made his way through the gutted vessel.
“A lot of new construction, everything is plywood, nothing is labeled, insulation everywhere on the ground, hoses on the ground, extension cords laying around, a lot of places to trip. There’s chaos everywhere. You can’t really find anything,” Garcia explained.
Instructor and retired firefighter Jeff Johnson helped design the exercise, and said it’s incredibly valuable to land-based departments because marine fires are inherently different.
“You’re dealing with steel structures instead of wood structures, different construction features, different hazards and a different way of having to fight the fire because it’s a floating structure now, not something that’s on land,” Johnson said. “If you put water on it, it changes the stability of the boat.”
Any water used to fight a fire on a vessel could sink it, or could even tip it over, one of many factors firefighters need to keep in mind as they navigate through latching steel doors and extremely hot surfaces.
Homer Fire Department Training Officer Dan Miotke attended the last exercise in Vladez two years ago and wanted to bring it to Homer. Members of Anchor Point’s department and Kachemak Bay Emergency Services participated as well. Miotke added it’s valuable for both to be familiar with Homer’s equipment in case either is called for backup to a vessel fire.
“I think this last year we had four vessel fires in the harbor. So it’s definitely one of our hazards that we need to be prepared for,” he said. “Our economy is sitting in the harbor, and we need to be able to protect those assets for the community.”
Several participants took a state certification test after Sunday’s exercise and all will bring home new skills to their communities.
This is only the second time the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Board has held the training session outside of Valdez.