Fireboats: Putting Out Fires Since 1765

Even a boat that’s floating in the middle of the water can catch fire.

That’s actually when it can be the most dangerous for the boat and the passengers: in the wide-open sea, there’s no fire truck and no emergency exit so you can run away from the fire. That’s where fireboats come in.

What Is a Fireboat?

Fireboats are specially-designed boats that are equipped with pumps and hoses to fight fires. They can put out shipboard fires, extinguish fires in dockside warehouses and buildings, and even pump water to land-based fire-fighting teams. Fireboats provide quick access to emergencies, and they (and other rescue boats) can help evacuate passengers.

While they might carry a tank of treated water to deal with chemical fires or fires near specialized equipment, the real value of fireboats is they can pump water directly from the lake or ocean they’re in for a never-ending extinguishing system. Even better, fireboats are designed to reach where land-based fire vehicles can’t. For example, they can directly target the underside of burning docks and warehouses to stop the spread of the fire at its base.

Many modern fireboats look just like sea-faring ships, so you might not recognize them unless you see ‘Fire Rescue’ emblazoned on the side. But you can find them at water-based parades that are welcoming new ships or celebrating local historical events. They’re the ships spraying water into the air, much like a highly choreographed airplane display.

What Did the First Fireboat Look Like?

The first fireboat was considered a ‘fire-float.’ The small watercraft got its start in London in 1765, and it was a regular rowboat modified with a manual water pump.

A similar boat was made in Bristol within the next twenty years. The idea spread to New York City by 1809, and soon fireboats became regular fixtures along coasts that depended on boats and trade. It wasn’t until the 1870s, over one hundred years later, that the first steamboats completely designed and built for fighting fires were made for the Boston Fire Department.

Who’s in Charge of All the Fireboats?

The Sun Fire Insurance Company owned London’s first fire-float, and fireboats in general spent their first several decades owned by private insurance groups. While municipal fire departments retrofitted their own fire-floats, it wasn’t until 1866 that the New York Fire Department leased their first powered fireboat. This was the John Fuller, a steam salvage tug widely regarded as the first modern fireboat.

Nowadays, fireboats tend to be municipal, state, and military vehicles. Most cities that sit on the coast have their own boats in the city’s fire department, especially if the city is a large port.  Coast guards and other national rescue agencies around the world also have fleets of fireboats that they can use during natural disasters or large marine fires.

Most fireboats are government property, though oil rigs and similar sites might have privately owned vessels at vulnerable sites to minimize potential damage or danger.

2 Fireboats That Famously Saved the Day

Fireboats are out saving lives and putting out fires every day. Two fireboats that have a spot in fire-fighting history include:

1. USS Hoga

The USS Hoga (YT-146) was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Ten of the crew’s men were aboard, and the ship was out saving people just ten minutes after the first strike. The team helped pull people out of the water, put out fires, and pushed USS Nevada out of the channel as it sank.

2. John J. Harvey

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the old fireboat John J. Harvey came out of retirement. Many of the city’s water mains were too damaged for firefighters to use. But John J. Harvey and two other fireboats were there to pump water to the site.