Florida Keys

Only a few agencies in the Keys have boats that can put out fires. There’s a reason

U.S. Coast Guard boats are equipped with pumps to help fight boat fires, like this one on June 15 in Marathon. No one was aboard.
U.S. Coast Guard boats are equipped with pumps to help fight boat fires, like this one on June 15 in Marathon. No one was aboard. U.S. Coast Guard

When a boat catches fire, it would seem logical that another boat equipped with firefighting capabilities would respond to put it out.

That’s not always the case in Monroe County for several reasons, according to local officials. For the nearly 30,000 registered boats in the Florida Keys, there are just a few agencies with vessels equipped to fight a blaze on the water.

Those include the Key West Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Marathon, Key Largo, Islamorada and Monroe County fire departments do not have fire boats, nor do the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission or the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

Since the beginning of the month, two boats have burned in Marathon and the Vaca Key Marina went up in flames.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s 2016 Boating Accidents Statistical Report, the number of boat fires has been relatively low statewide in recent years. There were only 15 fires out of almost 1,000 reported boating accidents last year.

County Fire Rescue Chief Jim Callahan said the problem with boats is their potential to burn quick.

“Most of the boats are fiberglass, which is petroleum-based. Everything else on it might be wood, so there’s a real fire load,” he said.

Key West Fire Chief Mike Davila said the city’s fire boat, a 29-foot 2015 Safe Boat with an aluminum hull, is used about once a month to put out boat fires around the island or transport patients in a medical emergency from islands only accessible by boat.

“If a boat is fully involved and the fire is already showing, there’s very little chance of saving it. You can keep it from sinking, but that does not mean the boat is saved,” he said, adding response time with the fire boat is longer than it would be in a fire truck. “Boats have a lot of fuel on them so it’s harder to save the actual boat itself, but it has been done. It’s all about response time.”

The Coast Guard’s focus is on saving lives, not fighting fires, according to Officer Robert Gonzales.

“The Coast Guard renders assistance as available, based on the level of personnel training and the adequacy of equipment,” he said, adding its boats have dewatering pumps used primarily for those in danger of sinking. There is an adapter that allows for a 1.5-inch fire hose that can be used on any vessel, but it has “limited fire suppression capability,” Gonzales said.

It was recently used to help put out a boat fire on the oceanside of Marathon near 20th Street. In the case of the 51-foot Miss Budweiser that caught fire off Boot Key on June 5, Gonzales said the Coast Guard’s pump “wouldn’t have done much” as it was fully engulfed.

Marathon Fire Rescue had a fire boat but it has been out of service since before Fire Rescue Chief John Johnson came on the job six years ago, he said. City Manager Chuck Lindsey said there are many reasons why the fire department doesn’t have one.

“Most of those factors contribute to actual limited capability versus cost,” he said.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219