The Los Angeles Fire Department is charged with the responsibility of the protection for the leading port on the west coast, Los Angeles Harbor. Today the LAFD’s unique Underwater Firefighting Team consists of 18 front-line divers and 6 reserve divers.
In the years following WW II several major fires occurred in Los Angeles Harbor focusing attention on the fact that a well involved wooden wharf fire was very difficult to extinguish: April 1947 – the freighter “Markay” explodes and splits in half, spreading gasoline across the water and igniting the substructure of several docks. March 1960 – berth 200-A is accidentally set ablaze. Losses from these two fires alone were in the millions of dollars.
The genesis of underwater firefighters goes back to St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1960. On that day a spark from a welder’s torch set ablaze a lumber barge tied up at Berth 200-A. The fire spread to the adjacent wharf, burning more than 1100 feet of dock before being controlled. Also threatened were a huge gantry crane and an adjacent warehouse. This disastrous fire, known as the “Matson Dock Fire,” resulted in over 3 million dollars in damage.
At the time of the Matson dock fire, Los Angeles Harbor had more than 28 miles of wooden wharf. The construction of a wooden wharf presents a nightmare from a firefighting standpoint. Built up against a concrete or rock bulkhead on the land side, a wharf is made up of wood pilings closely set. They support a maze of heavy timbers and stringers all capped with 4” wood planking and paved over with concrete or asphalt. All this timber is creosote or oil impregnated to retard deterioration from the marine environment. This open construction invites rapid spread of fire beneath the decking where it can travel out of reach of hose streams from above, and depending on the tides, from fireboats on the water side.
Conventional methods for attacking underwharf fires involved getting well ahead of the fire and cutting several holes through the decking starting from the bulkhead and working across the dock. Cutting these holes with jack hammers and chain saws was a long and laborious job considering the acrid smoke and tremendous heat billowing up from below. Cellar nozzles could then be lowered through the holes and a water curtain would be formed across the underside of the dock, hopefully stopping the fire from spreading. Often the fire would advance so fast firemen working from above had to abandon their positions and move further down the dock trying to stay ahead of the inferno below. Even under ideal conditions this method only stopped the fire from spreading. Extinguishment was very difficult because water applied from above could not reach the seat of the fire.
Fireboats attacking a burning wharf from the water side often did not fare much better. Depending on the height of the tides, the streams of water from a fireboat would often have difficulty reaching the seat of the fire because of the maze of lumber beneath the wharf.
After the infamous Markay fire in 1947 and the Matson dock fire in 1960 it was obvious a more effective method was needed to attack underwharf fires. Two circumstances set the stage for underwharf firefighting. First was the popularity of scuba diving by 1960. Barely ten years from its introduction, scuba diving had passed the pioneering era and was now a very popular sport. Second, the LAFD had a readymade team of divers in its ranks. Members of the LAFD Neptune’s Club were young, energetic and ready to apply their scuba diving skills to firefighting.
Assistant Chief W.W. Johnston was in charge of overhauling the Matson Dock fire. An avid diver with over 15 years experience, he reasoned that it might be possible for scuba divers to attack a wharf fire from below. Scuba divers had a ready supply of fresh air on their backs and swimming in the water they were protected from the heat above. Members of the Neptune Club were utilized to recover equipment dropped in the water during the Matson Dock fire. While the divers were under the wharf, Chief Johnston decided to see if it would be possible for them to swim through the pilings with charged hose lines and extinguish some hot spots still smoldering beneath the dock. To the divers’ surprise, the charged hose lines easily snaked around the pilings without hanging up and when turned on, the nozzle reaction could easily be overcome by tying a strap from the nozzle around a piling.
Chief Johnston and several other officers were pleased with the way the divers were able to handle themselves and their equipment beneath the wharf. They envisioned a radical new plan of attack for future wharf fires, using trained firemen attired in scuba gear to make direct attacks to the underside of a burning wharf. A committee was formed. Neptune members volunteered to test and suggest ways to float firehose and attach nozzles to floating platforms so they can be operated in the water and directed where needed. As the new program developed, nearly 150 Los Angeles City firemen were given the L.A. County Life Guard Basic Scuba Training course. A scuba training manual was written describing the various new drills, diving evolutions and procedures.
Drills were scheduled to refine the divers’ new skills. Simulated wharf fires using smoke bombs were commonplace in the harbor. However, these drills did not tell them what they really needed to know. How much fire and heat can an underwater firefighter endure? What about protection from falling objects? Will the newly designed equipment work under fire conditions? Can a diver stop a wharf fire from spreading by setting up a water curtain from below rather than rely on the old method of cutting holes from above and lowering nozzles down through the deck?
The answer of course was to experience a real fire. The opportunity presented itself when it was learned that the old wooden wharf at Berths 128 – 130 was to be razed. Permission was granted by the Harbor Department to burn up to 300 feet of wharf. Some of the objectives of the burn were to:
- Prove that trained firemen with scuba gear could make a direct attack to the underportion of a burning wharf
- Determine if the newly developed equipment worked as well in heat and smoke as it did in the simulated drills.
- Determine the effectiveness of setting up a water curtain from below to stop the spread of fire
- Test basic attack plans to coordinate both divers and fireboats
- Gather fire behavior data such as temperatures at the water surface, smoke densities at various levels and draft conditions under a burning wharf
- Develop a better system of communication between divers, fireboats and fire officers
The wharf was set ablaze using JP jet fuel. Three test fires proved that underwater firefighters can make a direct attack and extinguish any wharf fire. Some modifications were necessary to the newly designed equipment. Drills were scheduled to work out the bugs and further refine the divers’ newly acquired skills. Outside agencies who witnessed the drills were the US Coast Guard, Fish and Game, US Navy, LA Harbor Department and several other municipal fire departments.
On September 25, 1963 the Underwater Firefighters had a chance to prove themselves. The day was hot and dry when fire broke out on an abandoned cattle loading dock next to the Catalina Terminal. Due to its depth and heavy timber construction, it was one of the most hazardous occupancies in the Harbor. The alarm sounded in the boathouses and immediately fireboats and divers got underway. The billowing clouds of smoke on the horizon intensified as the divers suited up in their scuba gear. Upon arrival a few last words were exchanged as the Underwater Firefighters gave the thumbs-up and went overboard to deploy the water curtain. The divers quickly swam the hoselines and floating nozzles deep beneath the burning dock skillfully snaking them between the maze of pilings. After securing the floats to the pilings they signaled for the lines to be charged. In seconds a solid curtain of water was spread across the underside of the dock to keep the fire from spreading further. Swimming back to their fireboats the divers next advanced firefighting lines. They swam cautiously between the burning pilings, often ducking beneath the surface to escape the heat and falling debris. Their aggressive attack resulted in an immediate knockdown of the fire.
Again on December 28, 1967, the Underwater Firefighters were put to the test. Berth 174 was set ablaze by a welder’s torch near a can of gas. The fire quickly spread to several hundred feet of wharf. The Texaco Marine Oil Terminal was immediately to the south and was a major concern along with the Texaco Louisiana, a tanker ship with 30,000 barrels of crude oil on board. Land companies along with fireboats and divers immediately responded to the blaze and made a coordinated attack. The Underwater Firefighters quickly set up two water curtains, one at each side of the blaze and also advanced firefighting lines to the underside of the wharf. Fireboats 2 and 4 pumped a combined 25,000 gpm for the better part of six hours. While the divers made nearly 90 sorties beneath the burning wharf, only one diver was injured. Fireman Charles Hilger suffered a torn ligament and required surgery to repair the damage. Precaution had to be taken because of the close proximity of the divers and fireboats and the limited visibility due to the tremendous amount of smoke. With the final knockdown of the fire the Underwater Firefighters once again proved their value on the waterfront.
In addition to their firefighting duties and station responsibilities, the divers are often called upon for various waterfront related incidents. With the increase of shipping and commerce passing through LA Harbor, it’s not uncommon to have a dockworker or a vehicle accidentally end up in the bay. The divers can be called upon to use their underwater rescue, or search and recovery skills as necessary. They also respond to sinking boats to plug leaks in hulls or dive down and stop leaking fuel and oil tanks until the boats can be raised. Divers also play an important part in maintaining the five fireboats in the Harbor. Regular hull cleanings, along with zinc plate inspections and replacement are all part of a diver’s responsibilities. The divers also play an important role in fire prevention. They’re involved with interagency preparations for large scale emergencies, i.e., Coast Guard, Port Police, Harbor Department and the Long Beach Fire Department.
Since 1960, the LAFD’s Underwater Firefighters have proven themselves again and again to be a valuable tool in the protection of the Los Angeles Harbor. Today’s divers carry on the traditions pioneered by those who came before them.
Thanks to Bill Dahlquist for background information and photos.
Mark Howell was an engineer on Fireboat 4 for more than 20 years and now volunteers at the Harbor Museum and on the restoration of the Ralph J. Scott Fireboat. His hobby is hard hat diving, and with his divers club, puts on many demonstrations and lectures. Come and meet Mark and learn more about the dive program and see the diver displays in the Harbor Museum.
Bill Dahlquist was the Pilot on the Ralph J. Scott for 17 years and was one of the first members of the LAFD dive team. He volunteers at the Hollywood Fire Museum and is our supervisor on the fireboat restoration project. See Bill for some great stories about the pioneer divers and about the harbor.