A key weapon in Oakland’s disaster response – the city’s fireboat – is the victim of neglect and budget cuts and its loss leaves the city largely defenseless when a major quake knocks out water mains.
As the city examines what went wrong in last month’s deadly Ghost Ship fire, an NBC Bay Area investigation reveals other critical gaps in the city’s preparedness.
“It’s just a resource that’s just languishing,” says Lt. Scott Hellige, a 31-year veteran firefighter as he stands on deck of the Sea-Wolf, the city’s once proud fire boat.
“I think it just fell on the political cutting room floor more than anything, I just don’t think anyone knows what to do about it.”
Hellige should know, he is the last serving firefighter to serve on the fireboat’s crew.
City officials did not respond to inquiries over why, for more than a decade the $1.2 million vessel has been left to rot, dock-bound at Jack London Square.
It is left to Hellige, on his own time and with a small amount of Port of Oakland funding, trying to keep the boat from deteriorating beyond repair.
“As in any boat, it becomes a money pit and as you go along, things start to break down,” Hellige said.
It would cost some $100,000 to get the boat’s two high pressure water pumps working and complete the overhaul other corroding components.
But it is not the cost of fixing the boat that is the problem – it is the $2.5 million sum it would take to staff the vessel and the fire station that services it.
That staffing money was cut back in 2003 – without it, the boat is unmanned and the station closed.
“They should never have closed that fire station,” said Don Parker, a retired Oakland assistant fire chief who was later Vallejo’s fire chief.
He says the idled station is symptomatic of what he considers Oakland's distressing state of emergency preparedness. Parker helped push the 1992 bond measure to procure the boat along with miles of emergency backup fire hose.
The idea was to use the boat to pump water to the downtown area to fight quake sparked fires should the city’s aging water mains fail as feared.
“If you take out that fire boat,” Parker said. “You make entire parts of your city vulnerable to fire.”
It’s not just Parker who is sounding the alarm.
A 2012 review of the fire department’s emergency response done by an outside consultant, Folsom-based Citygate Associates, LLC, concluded that without the boat, Oakland is vulnerable to “typical incidents of terrorism on the water.”
The outside consultants urged that the city and the port restore the Sea-Wolf as a vital tool to protect the port in the “post 9-11 world.”
But there is another, more everyday risk inherent in leaving the waterfront fire station and boat out of service.
It comes from an unexpected source – freight trains that serve the port. The long, slow moving string of train cars can hold back crews responding from downtown for critical minutes.
Hellige says that he faced long waits trying to get back to the station when it was open. He said downtown based crews may have to wait precious minutes in responding.
“There is a chance that you will not be able to get here because of a train…so you are taking a chance, you’re taking a risk,” said Hellige, who added that he was told that more than 50 trains pass by on the way to the port.
Each creates a potential rolling roadblock – risk that Parker says is unacceptable.
“If that fire boat is not reinstated and they don’t open that station and put firefighters back in there….someone is going to pay the price,” the veteran fire chief warned.
Oakland firefighter union leader Zac Unger says firefighters in other port cities are astounded by the risk Oakland is prepared to take.
“When I go to other cities, I go to Seattle, I go to Long Beach, cities that have big ports,” he told us, “and I talk to the firefighters there – they are always amazed that we don’t have a boat. We’re kind of a laughing stock in terms of being able to protect our citizens on the waterfront.”