The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

RCAC trains firefighters in marine blazes

 

Heidi Zemach | For the LOG

Marine Firefighting Symposium participants climb on board the 105-foot arctic research vessel with hose in the final firefighting practice drill of the symposium in Seward on Oct. 10.

Smoke billowed out of the upper cabin of the Tanaina, a Kenai Fjords Tours wildlife cruise ship, summoning a firefighting team from Wrangell to set up a ladder to board the vessel and search its interior for a missing crewmember allegedly overcome by smoke. In the scenario the first team had already extinguished the fire in the galley, allowing the second team to search the upper deck, said instructor Gaylen Brevik, of Lynden, Wash. The team practiced climbing the steep steps to the upper deck through the darkness and smoke, where they discovered the victim, checked and prepared him for transport, and brought him off the ship from another ladder set up to an awaiting ambulance.

The three-day Marine Fire Symposium for Land-Based Firefighters, sponsored by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council and AVTEC-Alaska’s Institute of Technology, drew 39 firefighters to Seward last week. Participants came from Seward, Bear Creek, Homer, Katchemak Bay, Nikiski, Anchorage, Wrangell, Gustavus, Juneau and even Nome. Trainers came from as far away as Washington and Oregon, and Vancouver, Canada.

The training also brought four Alaska marine and salvage companies that provide shore-based firefighting assets to Alaska fire departments, allowing them to demonstrate the heavy equipment they use.

“Absolutely, it’s very important knowledge,” said Brevik, pausing after the exercise. “Just laddering the vessel for example... the vessel’s moving, the docks are moving, so there are very special techniques that we have to use to keep the ladder safe so we can use it. Once you get on board there are many obstacles like raised thresholds on the doors, very narrow passageways, smoke, seats in the way, that kind of thing.”

This was the first time that RCAC’s training for shore-based firefighters was held outside of Valdez in about 19 years, said Alan Sorum, RCAC’s maritime operations project manager. The road system location in Seward made the training more accessible for many, and allowed them to practice useful techniques on vessels that they might encounter in their own harbors. Usually, the Valdez trainings take place every other year on oil tankers.

“Alaska is basically a maritime state,” said Scott Hamilton, director of AVTEC’s maritime department. The state of Alaska recently enacted a new fire protection safety standard for marine firefighting for shore-based firefighters, and the training provided the participants with the basic information they would need to be certified under the new program, he said. With the marine fire training center now in place at Seward Marine Industrial Center, Seward is an ideal location for all facets of the required training.

“All of the major cities are on coastal river systems so this new standard is big,” Hamilton said. “Answering the call of a fire on a vessel is a very different science than a structural fire. All of these men and women here are trained to a structural standard. So you see these guys are excited, it’s the first time they’ve been on a tug boat or a cruise ship, and we’re really excited, too.”

The focus was on shipboard basics, cruise ship awareness, vessel familiarization, private/public response coordination and the politics of a marine incident. The first day was spent in lectures and featured a panel discussion. The next day, participants donned gear, grabbed hose, and put out mock fires with actual flames and mineral-based smoke in AVTEC’s new marine fire simulator building. These were realistic, hands-on physical experiences bringing real sweat, stinging eyes and physical exhaustion.

Thursday morning, they divided into several teams and hit the docks of the Small Boat Harbor. There, they began rotating between four vessels donated for the training, handling a variety of emergency scenarios and fires on board each, including two Kenai Fjords cruise ships, the John L. Foster, Seward Fire Department’s fireboat, and Junior, a Cook Inlet tugboat.

The grand finale took place on the Bering Explorer, a rusty old 1,005-foot former arctic research vessel docked near X Float. While the John L. Foster sprayed water toward the vessel before finally docking alongside it, firefighters carried fire hose from a fire engine parked at the dock entrance to the site, set up high ladders, and clambered aboard as smoke blew from within its cabin.

Seward Fire Chief Eddie Athey called the training a “golden opportunity” for his own staff and volunteers. It provided a chance for them to work alongside folks from large and small fire departments from across the state, and share ideas and techniques. The Seward Fire Department fights few actual vessel fires and shipboard medical emergencies each year, he said. Generally speaking, it is imperative that firefighters strive to improve their skills throughout their careers, as new equipment and training opportunities come along, he said.

“I’ve been here two years and this has been a great opportunity for me to get acquainted with AVTEC and its marine training center, and with the members of the fire department, added Seward Harbormaster Mack Funk. Two and a half decades ago he was a volunteer firefighter himself. But after working the fire hose at AVTEC’s training facility, he noted that plenty has changed in firefighting techniques, including his own physical capabilities.

The federal government shutdown prevented U.S. Coast Guard employee participation, which is generally high, so the number of attendees was lower than the 50-75 participants that organizers had hoped for, and there was a scheduling conflict due to an oil spill drill by ConocoPhillips in Prince William Sound, keeping Alyeska firefighters from joining the training.

 

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