When duty calls, the Vigilant patrols the Potomac


When the distress call came on an injured boater off the Alexandria waterfront on Tuesday, June 19, the four members of Engine 201 flew into action and became Shift of the Marine Operations Team. They fired up the engines of Fire Boat 201, aka the Vigilant, and went into action.

The waterfront was full of sailboats that afternoon, and on this particular boat, a passenger was thrown into the edge of the cabin door when the boat hit an underwater object. They stopped suddenly and he hit his face, and the passenger lost several teeth, said veteran fireman Kip Anderson.

Boats were pitching around that day and Anderson tried to keep the Vigilant steady as they pulled up along the sailboat. Theyre moving all around and I said, hey, youve got to put your sail down, Anderson recalled. The firemen of Shift B administered first aid and escorted the sailboat to land, and back to the station to await another call, either on land or in the river.

The members of Shift B including Anderson, Joe Marbito, Chris Lockwood and a newcomer, Fred Ruff, shuffle between land-based fire duties at the engine company and river-based. Ruff is being trained to drive the Vigilant because Anderson is retiring soon. Ruff has been out on training exercises five different times, and he does better each training session. I have good instructors, Ruff said.

Recently the crew prepared for the upcoming July 4 holiday, where the boat traffic is expected to be heavy. All day, boats come down here to watch fireworks, its the ideal place to watch them, said Anderson.

The Vigilant responds to emergencies and river fires, maintaining an official presence on the water, but they arent police and dont have enforcement capabilities. Were out here to help and assist, said Lockwood.

No powers on the water
Technically, once they leave the dock, the boat is in Maryland or District of Columbia jurisdictions, but they still have the power to assist with emergencies and put out fires, but not much else. We cant even board a private vessel, Lockwood added. On sunny days and weekends, the water is a busy place and the crew of the Vigilant can call the Coast Guard or Maryland police if they come across boaters that have had too much to drink, or are participating in a criminal act, but it hasnt happened yet according to Anderson. Ive never come across anybody who was intoxicated, said Anderson.

 After we got our boat, the police were lobbying for a boat but they dont have arrest power out here, either, said Anderson. Marine Operations Team members regularly train with member jurisdictions in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Potomac River Rescue Association.

Other emergencies are fresh in the crews memories, though. The boat crew was established after an emergency arose in the early 1990s involving a family boat outing where a child fell overboard and the father jumped in after the child. The fire department had no way to respond, so following that emergency, the city bought a used boat from the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Department, before investing in the Vigilant. Shortly after Alexandria purchased the boat, a helicopter hit a crane at the Woodrow Wilson bridge project, and that was our first call, said Marbito.

In the last few years the boat has responded to when a man who threatened to jump off the Woodrow Wilson bridge, a dock fire, and when the T.C. Williams High School rowing coach fell overboard. We recovered his body, said Marbito.

On the water
Lockwood always stresses one rule for boating: The most important part of boating is right here, he said, patting his life preserver secured around his neck. On the boat, its known as the PFD, personal flotation device. The boats are equipped with extra life preservers, emergency medical equipment and other boating necessities including sun block, as well as three fire cannons that shoot 1,500 gallons of water a minute. Their wish list consists of infrared binoculars to see at night and air conditioning. We had incidents where the FLIR (forward looking infrared) would have come in handy,said Lockwood.

Theyve helped put out a fire in the city dock area once, but have yet to have any big fires. One area theyve moderately trained for is the Robinson Terminal, and the Chart House Restaurant, both on the water. The crew examined depth charts and the shoreline to see what would be the best strategy if a fire broke out there.

There is a water cannon on the roof capable of shooting out 1,500 gallons of water a minute, and two hand controlled ones in the rear of the boat. We can knock down a tremendous amount of fire with 1,500 gallons per minute, Marbito said. The water cannons use water from the river, and are powered by the jet engines. The cannon on the roof follows the bow of the boat, and is aimed by maneuvering the bow around. Inside the cabin, there arent any luxuries. There is a seat for the driver, and two more seats around the edge but most of the sitting room is occupied by supplies. There is no air conditioning either, but the fireman like their time on the water. On a nice day, if Marbito wasnt at work, hed be on his own boat. Its not a bad gig, he said.