Lake Assault Boats, Superior, Wis., recently delivered a 28' fireboat to the Pedernales fire department, Pedernales, Texas. The new boat is a modified V hull featuring a 1,500 gpm fire pump, a 63" hydraulically operated bow door, a davit crane, a fully enclosed pilothouse, and a full array of advanced electronics. The craft is designed to respond to a wide range of emergencies, including structural fires, on-the-water rescues, and wildland fires.
Lake Travis, located on the Colorado River in central Texas, is a sprawling reservoir that serves as a primary water source for the city of Austin. The lake is well known for its wide range of recreational activities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and scuba diving. Portions of Lake Travis are included in the northern boundary of the department’s 55 sq. mile protection area. All told, the department covers more than 200 miles of shoreline.
“Because of its tremendous popularity, Lake Travis is also, unfortunately, one of the more deadly lakes in Texas,” said Lt. Kyle Swarts of the Pedernales Fire Department. “We were an all-volunteer department until 2003, when the first paid staff was hired,” Swarts said.
Because of its proximity to Lake Travis, the department has always needed a fireboat in its apparatus arsenal. “Our previous craft was left over from the volunteer department’s days, and it was retrofitted to give us a minimal level of capabilities,” said Swarts. “It finally got to the point where it couldn’t meet our requirements.”
Pedernales Fire Department learned about Lake Assault Boats from a neighboring department that had purchased a similar boat from the manufacturer a few years earlier.
Earlier this year, the Pedernales fire department was called out to a fully involved structural fire involving a two-story, 5,000-sq. ft. home under construction just a few weeks away from completion. “We initially had two water tenders at the scene, and a third from a mutual aid department, all feeding into a Quint aerial,” said Swarts. “Most of our district doesn’t have fire hydrants, so we’re very dependent on tenders.”
From the landside, firefighters quickly realized that they would not be able to keep up with water demands. (The turnaround time to get one of the tenders to a hydrant was about 25 minutes.) They made the decision to call upon the fireboat and its 1,500-gpm pump. “I — and a few other firefighters — had a sheriff’s deputy take us down to the marina,” Swarts explained. “We raced back to the fire scene and anchored the boat alongside the dock closest to the house.” By the time they arrived, crews had already deployed five-inch hose down to the dock. Firefighters quickly hooked up a small “pony” section to the fire pump and began to feed water uphill to the aerial (fire truck with extension ladder) apparatus. “We were there for a couple of hours, and estimate that the boat pumped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 gallons,” Swarts said.
Because of the elevation change from the waterline to the tip of the aerial, crews from the mutual aid departments were initially skeptical that the fireboat would be able to supply the aerial. “The operation was no problem at all for our boat’s firefighting system,” Swarts said. “In fact, the aerial operator had to call a few times and ask us to knock the pressure down. By the time we returned to the marina, the boat was covered in a sheet of ice. This was the first time we attacked a major fire in real-world conditions, and it performed flawlessly.”
The craft and its crew respond to a wide range of on-the-water and shoreline emergencies, including boating accidents, missing persons reports, and drowning / recovery operations. The department also conducts high-angle rope rescues along cliffs that line portions of the shoreline. In these scenarios, according to firefighters, the boat’s hydraulically operated bow door is its single most popular feature. “The first holiday weekend after placing the boat into service, we rescued a pair of jet skiers who were reported lost on the water,” Swarts said. “They were fine, but their jet skis had died on a remote part of the lake.” The crew lowered the bow door down to the waterline and loaded the pair of jet skis right onto the craft’s deck. “In a really slick operation, we strapped the jet skis down and transported the people and their craft back to their group. In other instances, we’ve used the bow door basically to scoop up accident victims and slide them safely into our boat,” Swarts said.
Portions of the shoreline feature rocky cliffs, and the department periodically has needed to conduct high angle rope rescues. “Before having the new fireboat, we’d oftentimes secure patients and carefully hoist them up the cliff to a waiting emergency vehicle,” said Swarts. “Now, we can deploy the bow door onto the shoreline to keep it stable, and walk the patient right on board. It makes the whole operation a lot safer for them and for us. If we attempted this with another style of boat, we’d have to climb the patient over a side rail.”
Like many parts of Texas, the Lake Travis region carries the risk of major wildfires, and the new fireboat is built to enable a faster and more effective response. The fireboat is also an ideal conduit to take advantage of the lake’s virtually limitless water supply. “If needed, we can use the boat to quickly shuttle fire crews and ATVs where needed. The fireboat gives us a whole new level of capabilities,” Swarts said. “We can set up anywhere on the lake, and create a fill point for water tenders or brush trucks; it gives us a lot of flexibility to more quickly mitigate an incident. That was one of the main reasons we got the boat in the first place: to use it as a floating fire hydrant.”