Fireboat is latest in a long, proud line

The Baltimore Sun

State and local officials are slated to gather at 11 a.m. today on the grounds of Fort McHenry with family members of the late John R. "Jack" Frazier, to christen the Baltimore City Fire Department's newest fireboat, named after the longtime bureau commander and legislative liaison who died this year.

The 87-foot vessel, whose top speed is 16 knots, was built at a cost of $6.7 million at Hike Metal Products Ltd. in Wheatley, Ontario, which specializes in building fireboats, patrol boats, tugs and research vessels.

After completing its sea trials in May, the John R. Frazier left the company's Lake Erie shipyard June 2 for a weeklong voyage to Baltimore.

While passing through New York's harbor, the vessel saluted the Statue of Liberty with its four water nozzles, called monitors, as it slowly steamed by.

The vessel arrived June 9 at the Fire Department's marine division headquarters on Leahy Street, near Fort McHenry.

Designated a "regional response watercraft," it was purchased with funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and in addition to protecting the Baltimore waterfront, it will serve Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, and Annapolis.

The Frazier replaces the fireboat Mayor J. Harold Grady, which was retired after 46 years of service. The Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., officially Fireboat 2, will serve as a backup to the Frazier.

Built by the R.T.C. Shipbuilding Corp. of Camden, N.J., the D'Alesandro entered service after being commissioned in 1956.

Called the Tommy by crew members, the fireboat has been stationed at Fort McHenry, as well as at now-closed stations in Fells Point, President Street, Curtis Bay, Canton, Wagners Point and Colgate Creek.

Baltimore is one of a handful of U.S. cities, including New York and Boston, that still maintain a fleet of fireboats with full-time crews.

The marine division goes back to 1870 when John W. Watkins, chief engineer, recommended to the Board of Fire Commissioners that it contemplate purchasing a large tug with a powerful steam engine that was capable of carrying at least 2,000 feet of hose.

Twenty more years of waterfront fires would occur before an ordinance passed in 1890 allocating $35,000 for the establishment of a fireboat company and an appropriate vessel. The company, designated as Engine Company 16, was established with a dozen firefighters.

The company's first fireboat, the Cataract, entered service in 1891 and was based at Commercial Wharf in Fells Point.

So successful was the Cataract that by the end of its first year of service, the department's chief engineer wrote in his annual report that "it has saved several times the cost of the boat and equipment already."

The Cataract gained lasting fame during the 1904 Baltimore Fire, when the fireboat, aided by a Coast Guard revenue cutter and three tugs, extinguished the flames that had jumped eastward over the Jones Falls.

A second vessel, the Deluge, entered service in 1911, and the city Fire Department's marine division, made up of Engine Company 16 and Engine Company 39, was placed under the command of Capt. James N. Robb.

Because of heavy industrialization and the 1919 annexation of land from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, the waterfront expanded from 15 miles to 45 miles, which required additional fireboats to protect the shoreline.

In 1921, the Torrent (and later the Cascade) joined the expanding fleet of four vessels, which were strategically stationed around the harbor and could be on the scene of a fire in short order.

The fireboat fleet met the existing needs and remained unchanged until 1956, when the D'Alesandro entered service. By 1960, the Tommy was joined by two new, all-steel, diesel-powered boats, the Grady, P.W. Wilkinson and August Emrich.

In 1989, the department added a 24-foot vessel that was designated a fast-response fire/rescue boat. It was capable of skimming along in 8 inches of water and operating in areas inaccessible to the regular fireboats. It could also be transported to a rescue scene by trailer.

The original rescue boat was replaced in 2003 by Fire/Rescue Boat 1, and a sister vessel, Fire/Rescue 2, a year later.

Built by SeaArk Marine Inc. of Monticello, Ark., the all-aluminum vessels are 30 feet long and can race across the water at speeds of up to 40 mph. Like their predecessor, the vessels are able to operate in shallow water and are equipped for firefighting and medical emergencies.

The city Fire Department's marine division is now made up of 37 officers and firefighters. Its Fort McHenry station is manned around the clock, 365 days a year.

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