Oakland fireboat Sea-Wolf navigates a murky future

Lieutenant Scott Hellige, 19 years old and fresh off a plane from Kansas City, spent his first night in California on the Oakland Estuary’s Coast Guard Island. It was April 1979. “I am a Midwesterner,” Hellige says. “I saw that Coast Guard film of the surfers doing the search and rescue thing, and I thought that was so cool. It was a rescue thing, not a war thing.”

Tall and slender, with messy white hair, Hellige has the face of a younger man than 50. He’s a firefighter now—after five years in the Coast Guard, Hellige decided to join the Oakland Fire Department—and he works as lieutenant for Station 4, a narrow concrete building a few blocks from the Oakland waterfront.

Hellige used to work out of Station 2, the fireboat station on the waterfront at the base of Clay Street at Jack London Square. His title was Fireboat Operator/Marine Pilot, and many weeks he was out on a fireboat call almost every day. But in 2003 the Sea-Wolf was cut from the city budget. All 16 of the Station 2 firefighters were transferred to other stations. The Sea-Wolf has been kept in working order,Caption maintained by a retired marine engineer and docked beside the two powerboats the Oakland Police Department uses mainly for patrolling. Now 14 years old, the Sea-Wolf still looks brand new, like a child’s toy floating in the bathtub.

Light bounces off the boat’s red hull. There isn’t a smudge to be seen on the cabin, which is painted a bright white.

Until the night of October 7, the Sea-Wolf hadn’t seen action for seven years.

But at about 11 that night, wall-mounted speakers throughout Station 4 broadcast a 911 call. With alarms echoing off the concrete walls and both garage doors quickly raised, Station 4’s fire engine and truck roared out the door. With the engine’s lights flashing and sirens blazing, the firefighters were headed to Tiki Tom’s, the shut-down empty restaurant and bar docked on the Oakland estuary at the foot of the Park Street Bridge. A short time earlier, Tiki Tom’s had gone up in flames.

Riding on the fire engine, Hellige soon arrived at Tiki Tom’s. The front of the restaurant, the only side of the building the firefighters could access on land, had not yet started to burn. Entering the front, hoses in hand, the firefighters watched fire consume the ceiling. “The entire structure burst into flames” within seconds, Hellige says. “My first impression was that it was going to be a long night.”

Then, his voice audible over the radio, the incident commander had a thought, though he was not even sure it was possible: what about the fireboat?

Scott Hellige, the last of the Sea-Wolf’s crew, overheard. “It just happened to come down perfectly,” Hellige says. “They were talking about using the boat, and I was there.” In a staff car, with the crew of Station 12, he drove to the foot of Clay Street, where the Sea-Wolf was docked.

Station 4 Lieutenant James P. Troy jumped into the SAFE Boat, a smaller powerboat, and immediately left the dock to check on the situation and report back. Hellige stepped off the dock, onto the deck of the Sea-Wolf, and began shouting orders to his five-man crew. “We had to turn on all the systems, make sure the air system was fully charged, make sure the pump and fire system is primed,” Hellige says. Then he and the crew briefly tested each system. “A bit more work,” Hellige says. But it’s important to take the extra time. “You have to ensure that you are not going to have a mechanical breakdown. That would only make a bad situation worse.”

With everything working properly, the Sea-Wolf slowly pulled away from the dock. Much easier to get moving than the boat Hellige trained on, the Sea-Wolf sped up. The deck was full of motion. Firefighters were readying each turret, the giant revolving guns that shoot water instead of bullets. The Sea-Wolf has four turrets; one on either side of the boat’s deck, one in the front, and the largest located on top of the boat. The fireboat has the capacity to shoot out 8,000 gallons of water per minute.

Hellige says the great plumes of smoke from the restaurant were easily visible from the water. He aimed the boat towards the smoke.

***

Fireboat 1957
Oakland fireboat, the Port of Oakland, 1957. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

For more than a half century, the working fireboat was a beloved part of Oakland’s waterfront. The boat first arrived in 1948, when one day in May the U.S. Navy officially handed over a fireboat called the U.S.S. Hoga. With World War II over, the Navy no longer needed the large fleet of fireboats built for use in the war. Helping to extinguish fires on other boats or on shore, saving people after shipwrecks, or clearing narrow waterways of debris, fireboats served an important role during the war years. Stationed at Pearl Harbor since the December 7th attack, the Hoga traveled over 2000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to reach its new home, Oakland.

The city welcomed the fireboat with open arms, quickly renaming the boat the Port of Oakland. For many years, with a dock at the foot of Broadway, the fireboat was the pride of Oakland. The boat put on water displays, streaming water into the air and across the estuary. When the Port of Oakland was docked, it was often open to visitors who just wanted to poke around its engine rooms.

While a popular attraction, the fireboat’s real job in Oakland was firefighting. Just as it had during the war, the Port of Oakland put out fires both on boats and land, and assisted in other emergency situations where it could be of service. In 1957, the Oakland Tribune heralded the fireboat as “Oakland’s most valuable piece of fire-fighting equipment.”

But in 1963, the Port Commission—which had agreed to cover the housing and maintenance costs of the city’s fireboat–announced that it would no longer pay its share of the costs. At the time, it cost $120,000 a year to maintain the boat, which now appeared destined for abandonment.

Amid the public outcry that followed, though, James J. Sweeney, Oakland’s fire chief from 1955 to 1972, “emphasized that the real issue [was] the hazard of a waterfront fire that could cost millions of dollars,” as a Tribune article put it. Finally the City Council voted to assume the full cost of the city fireboat. Now renamed the City of Oakland, the fireboat continued to fight waterfront and marine vessel fires and help the fire department in any way it could.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991, Oakland officials decided the back-to-back natural disasters called for an upgrade to the city’s emergency vehicles. In 1992, Oakland voters passed Measure I, allocating funds for “Oakland’s emergency response and seismic safety,” says Fire Department Battalion Chief Darin M. White. “Sometimes with earthquakes, you can also have problems with the hydrant system. And as a result, a fireboat serves as a pumping platform to produce water from the estuary.”

Using a turret

Firefighter operating a turret on the Oakland fireboat, the Port of Oakland, 1957. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

$1.3 million from Measure I was set aside for a new fireboat, commissioned especially for Oakland. Built in Pascagoula, Mississippi, the boat took about eight months to finish, and as it made the journey from Pascagoula to Oakland, a contest was held to come up with a name for the new arrival.

Since the boat would be housed right next to Jack London Square, it seemed appropriate that the boat be named after one of Jack London’s literary works. The winning name was Sea-Wolf.

The new boat was a conventional tugboat, with twin-screw dual engines, an aluminum hull, and diesel engine. Thrusters and the lighter aluminum hull allowed for better maneuverability, and a greater water capacity meant the boat could shoot out 8,000 gallons of water per minute. “Just by virtue of not being 50 years old, we got a lot of new stuff,” Hellige says.

The outdated City of Oakland (the fireboat, that is, not the whole city) was sent to nearby Suisun Bay, home of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, more commonly known as the mothball fleet. Retired, but still afloat in the bay, the City of Oakland remains ready to serve in case of emergency.

But by 2003, after only nine years serving the city of Oakland, the brand-new, state-of-the-art Sea-Wolf, seemed doomed to join the City of Oakland in the mothball fleet.

The Sea-Wolf was out on the water about five times a week, Hellige says, responding to calls—mostly waterfront fires, persons in the water, or sinking vessels. Staff salaries, maintenance, and fuel were the main contributors to the boat’s $2.2 million cost per year. With Oakland facing a $48.3 million funding gap, the Sea-Wolf was on the chopping block. In July of 2003 a decision was made.

Measure I mandated that the fireboat remain a water resource in case of an earthquake. So without completely cutting the Sea-Wolf from the budget, the city took the boat out of active service. Station 2, the fireboat station, was closed. The fire and marine staff were transferred away. Three marine pilots and four marine engineers retained their titles, with the understanding that they could be called to duty if necessary.

The Sea-Wolf would not go quietly, though. Its decommission remained a heated issue.

2003 City Council president Ignacio De La Fuente told the Oakland Tribune that Station 2 would have remained open, with the Sea-Wolf in active service, “if the firefighter’s union [Local 55], had agreed to pay an additional 3 percent into their pension plans.”

The union had agreed to pay if other considerations were taken, such as restoring the engine company closed in January of that year. But the city turned down the terms.

The previous April, the Port of Oakland had offered an annual $2.2 million to cover the costs of both the Sea-Wolf and Station 2. The city said no to this offer as well. It is unclear why.

Even one last heroic display could not save the Sea-Wolf from its fate. The fireboat was instrumental in putting out a fire at Larry and Della’s Waterfront Restaurant in Alameda on January 8, 2003.

The Alameda Fire Department couldn’t stop the fire, with 12 vehicles firing water onto the blaze, but after they called for mutual aid, the Sea-Wolf “put that fire down in two minutes,” Hellige says.

Hellige now spends most his time on fire engines, not the fireboat. Jumping out the fire engine door as it slowly backs into Station 4, he apologizes for being late to a scheduled interview; Hellige was out on a call, saving the life of a 3-year-old girl. Hellige’s smile is the first thing you see.

“I like this station,” he says. “I like working in Oakland.”

At 50, Hellige is one year shy of the retirement age of the old Hoga, the City of Oakland —which used to be his fireboat. He trained on the City of Oakland.

According to Hellige, at 325 tons, the City of Oakland was basically a train on the water. But the Sea-Wolf glides when it’s on the waters of the estuary, and Hellige remembers that as he piloted the boat through the darkness toward the Tiki Tom’s fire, he was talking to Troy and the Coast Guard at the same time, “I was dealing with the tides going, the nozzle reaction,” Hellige says.

Visible on shore, three fire engines were still shooting large streams of water at Tiki Tom’s. A boat that had been tied up behind the restaurant had caught fire and was slowly drifting toward the boardwalk connecting the restaurants to a block of condominiums.

The condominiums had people in them. The flaming boat presented a serious threat.

But the Sea-Wolf was designed to be able to extinguish fires consuming large warehouses or entire piers, Hellige says, so it had more than enough power to snuff out the fire consuming both the boat and restaurant. The fireboat’s main turret can shoot 3,600 gallons of water per minute. With two additional turrets each pushing 1,500 gallons a minute at Tiki Tom’s, the flames quickly began to die. “They went out in two to five minutes,” Hellige says. “It was radical. It was dramatic.”

The Sea-Wolf’s water-pumping capacity, when all four turrets are going at once, exceeds the capacity of everything in the fire department,” Hellige says. “And that is just the minimum of flow” when it comes to the new Fast Response Fireboats, he says. New York City’s newest fireboat can pump 50,000 gallons of water per minute while firefighting.

“We don’t need the fireboat a lot,” Hellige says. “But when it’s called for, it’s an awesome tool.”

Skyline
Oakland fireboat, the Port of Oakland, 1951. Photo taken by H.A. ‘Buck’ Joseph. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

The Hoga’s sister ship, the USS Mazapeta, lives at the front of the USS Hornet in Alameda. Missing his old friend, Hellige sometimes unties the lines of the Mazapeta and takes the boat out on the bay. Laughing, Hellige says, “I’ve gotten out of condition for driving that pig of a boat.”

Hellige may retire from the Oakland Fire Department in five years, and he is the only firefighter left who knows how to operate the fireboat. If Hellige had not been on duty the night of the Tiki Tom’s fire, the Sea-Wolf would have remained moored for the evening.

When the Sea-Wolf was decommissioned in 2003, “the US Coast Guard might still have been able to provide some fireboats,” White says. But also making cuts, the Coast Guard can no longer offer those resources.

“There were some tough decisions,” to make in 2003, White says. “What [could] we do without?”

***

Can Oakland still do without its fireboat?

This past May, Hellige and Battalion Chief Darin White began to develop a contingency plan for the use of the fireboat in a variety of different emergency scenarios. “It will have to address a multitude of things,” White says. “The training needs of personnel. Who will have the authority to activate the fireboat.”

White did detail a number of scenarios that Hellige and he think the Oakland fire department need to be trained to handle: a sinking vessel or vessel in distress, oil spills, and planes’ emergency water landings.

But in general, White and Oakland Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark H. Hoffmann both say that for now, given the city’s difficult economy and the volatile challenges of funding different aspects of public safety, they prefer not to talk publicly about the future of the Sea-Wolf and fireboats in Oakland.

The fire department has made certain recent advances when it comes to the fireboat. This year, the department has already trained additional people in the use of the fireboat, receiving federal funding through a grant from the Super Urban Security Initiative.

Even if the Sea-Wolf doesn’t rejoin active service, the boat, in conjunction with Oakland’s Portable Water Supply System (PWSS), designed and built by the Oakland Fire Department, also provides the city with the ability to transfer water from the estuary up to four miles inland. Each Oakland PWSS vehicle, a large truck that serves as a portable hydrant, has one mile of hose, and when hooked up to the fireboat, Oakland’s four PWSS vehicles combined could provide the city with water in the event Oakland’s primary water supply is interrupted due to earthquake.

As it runs drills to prepare for this exact event and other water supply emergencies, the Oakland Fire Department will occasionally call on Hellige to wake up the Sea-Wolf. The last of these drills was about five years ago. Hellige pulled the Sea-Wolf away from its dock at the base of Clay Street and moored it at the foot of Broadway. Standing on the fireboat, Hellige pumped water through a hose connected to the first of four PWSS vehicles lined up on land. Fire department officials wanted to make sure that water pumped from the estuary by the fireboat could reach and extinguish a fire burning down City Hall, if that were ever to happen. The Sea-Wolf passed the test.

It’s not a simple piece of machinery to operate. When the Sea-Wolf is in action, fighting fires on the water, the boat really needs at least four personnel — “the more the merrier,” Hellige says. A firefighter/fireboat operator or marine pilot drives the boat, and a marine engineer keeps the boat’s engine running properly. Both positions require additional training and licenses. At least two additional firefighters are also needed to manage the hand lines, aim the turrets, and do whatever else might be necessary.

“When I was on the boat during the training, I could just sense when they were doing something wrong,” Hellige said. After long days of correcting mistakes, when he was too tired to go ashore and go home, Hellige would pull out his sleeping bag and sleep on the floor of the Sea-Wolf.

“People underestimate the level of training it requires,” says Hellige, who ran the recent federally-funded training. “In a wind current, the boat will take off like a big kite,” Hellige says, referring to the City of Oakland. “There is a huge delay in the steering. Piloting the boat is an art.”

The highest-ranking officer on the fireboat has even more to consider, he says “I have to be concerned with people falling into the water, life safety, people being crushed by the boat, other boats in the way,” Hellige says. “There is the potential for collateral damage. Plus, I got a million dollar asset that I’m driving. It’s a lot of boat.”

Hellige doesn’t think he will ever completely leave a life at sea. “I can operate a boat intuitively better than anything in my life,” Hellige says. “I seem to have an affinity for it. I guess you can call it a calling.”

Still charged from getting to take out the Sea-Wolf, Hellige, reflecting on the Tiki Tom’s fire, says, “that boat was effective. It changed the outcome instantaneously. We got there and put out the fire in like five minutes. Boom! Any questions?”

Read Oakland North’s additional coverage of the Tiki Tom’s fire.

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2 Comments

  1. Jim Ratliff

    Very interesting story. Thanks!

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