PORTLAND – Firefighters who pilot Portland’s $3.2 million fireboat will not be required to be licensed by the Coast Guard.
The issue of requiring Coast Guard training for the city’s fireboat crew emerged last year after the fireboat hit an underwater object near Fort Gorges, shearing off a shaft and damaging a propeller and a rudder.
It was the second accident since the boat was purchased in 2009. Both accidents caused about $130,000 worth of damage.
The Coast Guard requires operators of commercial passenger vessels, such as ferries and excursion boats, to hold captain’s licenses. Operators of the city’s fireboat are trained by the fire department.
After the most recent accident, on Oct. 15, 2011, City Manager Mark Rees said he would look into whether the city should require fireboat pilots to be licensed by the Coast Guard.
This week, he announced at two meetings where city councilors and staff members spoke with residents that the city would not alter its training.
Rees said in an interview Friday that his decision was based on the fact that Coast Guard training “is not really applicable” to the fire department’s needs.
“Our focus is on emergency response and being able to go into areas that are not part of the navigable channels,” Rees said.
Last year’s accident happened shortly before sundown during a training run near Fort Gorges. Two firefighters were suspended, and city officials learned that friends and family members of the firefighters were on board at the time.
The incident prompted the city to tighten its policy for use of the fireboat. Now, civilians are allowed on the boat only to be transported in emergencies. People who conduct city business may ride on the boat if its use is approved in advance by the city manager.
Peter Bryant, who lives on Back Cove, attended the meeting with city councilors and staffers Wednesday at Riverton Elementary School.
Bryant, a retired merchant mariner with 40 years of experience, said he and several other residents questioned the wisdom of not putting firefighters through the Coast Guard training.
“Without training, it’s going to happen again,” Bryant said Friday of the potential for future mishaps.
Acting Fire Chief Stephen Smith said firefighters are properly trained before they pilot the boat. Crew members must put in time as deckhands and then learn about the boat’s systems and engines before they can train to pilot it, he said.
The 10-page training checklist provided by city officials covers various topics — nautical terms, rules of the road, safety, engineering and piloting. It refers to Coast Guard navigation rules, and explains proper etiquette for encountering other boats.
There is no required number of training hours, Smith said.
“It’s more based on their ability to do things as opposed to hours of doing it,” Smith said. “With the Coast Guard, there’s testing and all that, and considerable hours involved.”
A training specialist for the Coast Guard could not be reached Friday to discuss its training program.
Rees said the decision to stick with the department’s training procedures was made after the city’s insurance underwriter deemed the program adequate.
According to a letter March 26 from Marine Safety Consultants, the city’s operating regulations require pilots to remain in marked channels in Casco Bay and Portland Harbor. The consultant noted that the city’s two fireboats must venture into harm’s way in rescue situations.
“This does not relieve the pilot from being familiar with the water depths and bottom characteristics in the areas of the vessel’s navigation, as well as the limits of the vessel,” wrote marine surveyor Neil C. Rosen.
Rosen said the department’s “checklist” is sufficient training for firefighters to pilot the 65-foot aluminum-hulled vessel.
Former Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne, who retired in April, said his investigation showed that the accident the previous fall could have been avoided and the firefighters failed to follow city procedures and Coast Guard rules.
The two crew members were suspended without pay, but not for having the civilians aboard. The city had no policy against that.
The findings of the city’s investigation into the accident have not been released, because the disciplined firefighters have appealed their punishments.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: