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Fire Department Increases Its Water Power

August 1, 2002

Alexandria Fire Department's Marine Operations Team (MOT) is bracing for a lot more action as the number of crews working over the water on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project doubles in the next few months.

That was the prediction of Capt. Mike Beckett assessing the team's increased preparedness within the department. "The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project now has approximately 150 people working over water. This is going to increase to nearly 300 in the months ahead," Beckett said. "That increase will probably be reflected in water-related accidents."

Until 1998, Alexandria Fire Department had only a minimal capability in responding to water-related emergencies. "The team really got formalized when a family fell into the river while boating on a warm February day," said Battalion Chief Chet Helms, who now heads the team.

"We send four or five firefighters each year to the Hampton Roads Marine Firefighting Symposium," Helms noted. Under the multiple sponsorship of a wide variety of maritime and fire organizations, the symposium is designed to familiarize land-based firefighters and maritime personnel on procedures necessary to handle water-related incidents connected with a port or waterway.

This year more than 100 firefighters from across the nation attended the week-long course on vessel construction and safety, firefighting tactics, incident command procedures, live burn evolution and contingency planning, among others. Capt. Glen Taylor from the Alexandria Department served as one of the instructors.

"We also have started having classes right here," Helms noted. "The concentration is primarily on fire suppression."

MOST OF THE CALLS received by the Alexandria crew center around rescues. "We've had nine such calls in the last 12 months. Everything from people falling overboard to jumpers from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. In this area we are now considered the first-responders," Helms said.

"The opportunity for rescue operations is amazing," according to Firefighter Joseph Morabito. "We have had everything from someone going in the water being pulled in a tube by a motor boat to people jumping in the water after their dog and getting too far from their boat. The Fourth of July out here, on our part of the river, looked like I-95 at rush hour."

Although the Alexandria team is now up to 24 members, it is still behind in strength, according to Helms. "But we interface with all the other jurisdictions that have marine capabilities," he said.

The department has one hard-bottom boat, a 23-foot Seahawk powered by a 200-horsepower Yamaha outboard, and two 13-foot Zodiac inflatables with 35-horsepower outboards. "These are portable and enable us to get into very shallow water," Beckett explained. None has fire-suppression capabilities.

Boat 200, the hard-bottom, is anchored at City Dock, while both Zodiacs are housed at Station 204. The primary response station for Marine Operations is 201 at 317 Prince St. One Zodiac is always attached to a truck at Station 204.

Boat 200 can be operative within 4 1/2 minutes of a call, and both Zodiacs can get from the station to the river in approximately five minutes, according to Morabito. Each of the inflatables can carry a crew of three.

"We can also use the Zodiacs to do boom duties in the event of hazardous-material spills," he emphasized. "And they would be very helpful as stable platforms for firefighters who might have to go into the water when the river has ice on it."

Helms noted, "When we first started, we didn't encourage people [rescuers] to go into the water. Now we have a course in rescue swimming. And we have special equipment for going into icy water, and we are giving shipboard firefighting courses.

"But the more we get into it, the more we need to learn. Every time we have gotten a call, we have never failed to get the person out of the water successfully."

ALEXANDRIA MOT is composed of all volunteers. The personnel comes from engine and truck companies, according to Helms.

"Even though our jurisdiction area is small here, the increased boat traffic on the river has the potential for a major accident. The no-wake zone in our area has helped us tremendously. But, with the buildup along the waterfront, it seems that a tragedy is inevitable," Morabito speculated.

"For years we counted on D.C. to patrol the river. The establishment of this team had to be justified by our developing a better response time. That's why we focus on response time — to get help to the citizens as soon as possible," Helms emphasized.

"One of the problems is that most boaters use their cell phones in a case of emergency. Most don't have radio equipment. Cell-phone calls can be routed a number of different ways, and there's no way knowing exactly where they are unless they can be very specific," Morabito said.

In addition to river calls, Alexandria's MOT respond to calls on various bodies of water within the area. "Some of these can be just as treacherous as the river and in some ways more so because people don't view them in the same way," Morabito warned.

Each rescue operation carries the potential of tragedy not only for the victim but also for the first-responders. "Everybody is responsible to track everyone else on the boat at all times when we are on a call. That is an essential part of the operation," Morabito stressed.