Party cruisers in the Washington Channel expect to get some sights along with their cocktails. Besides Hains Point and Fort McNair, though, these days they’ll also see something a lot less appetizing: the D.C. Fire and EMS Department’s John H. Glenn Jr. fireboat.

Nestled at the Metropolitan Police Department’s harbor patrol pier between inflatable speedboats and more modern fireboats, the 71-foot, 52-year-old Glenn looks like an overgrown tugboat. The boat, which was damaged by a dinner ship crash in 2009 and had a leaky equipment room in 2011, is currently out of service.

Despite the ship’s problems, though, it could be the most powerful fireboat in the city’s fleet, if only they would fix it. Two years after an inspector general report declared the Glenn obsolete and dangerously under-inspected, the fire department still hasn’t repaired or replaced the ship.

While the department’s equipment woes on land have drawn more media attention—a September inspection of the department’s ladder trucks took nearly half of them out of service—the Glenn’s absence from District waterways threatens the department’s ability to perform firefighting and rescue missions. As the fireboat floats at the MPD pier, its sorry state leaves the city without its most powerful nautical tool to fight fires and the only District-owned icebreaker capable of opening the Potomac or Anacostia rivers during a winter emergency.

“It is a problem, and the fireboat is an integral part of the District,” says fire union president Ed Smith.

The Glenn has made a slightly less exalted journey than its astronaut-turned-senator namesake. Built in 1962, the ship was used by the New York Fire Department for 15 years. The District government obtained it in 1977.
The boat was put to the test five years later in January 1982, when an Air Florida plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge. As the Glenn struggled to rescue the ship’s passengers, it and other rescue boats were bogged down by ice.

Seventy people died in the incident, inspiring the fire department to outfit the Glenn with an icebreaking bow. Even without winter emergencies, the boat was used to break ice several times a day in some winters, according to a 2010 Washington Post story.

The fireboat served in other ways, too: It was on call to respond to plane crashes at Reagan National Airport and hosted a floating command center after a 2007 CSX train sent freight cars into the Anacostia.

The ship’s more recent history hasn’t been quite as august. In 2009, the sightseeing ship Spirit of Washington rammed into the Glenn, gouging an 11-foot hole in its starboard hull that was so severe it exposed the interior cabins.

While the damage was repaired, an inspector general’s report on the boat suggests that the effects of the 2009 crash weren’t properly tested. Troubles continued for the fireboat, which sprung a leak in its equipment room in 2011. Crew members stopped the hole with a wooden plug, a repair so unreliable that DCFEMS staff were required to add checking to make sure the plug hadn’t slipped to their list of duties. Another repair a few days later was botched when even more leaks were discovered.

Problems aside, though, the Glenn could be a potent tool for DCFEMS. Its three water cannons can shoot 7,000 gallons of water a minute. That’s five times as much as an average firetruck, according to a 2003 Post story about repairs to the boat. That makes it valuable not just for ship fires, but for extinguishing blazes on waterfront buildings. When the dinner boat accident sent the Glenn in for repairs, then-DCFEMS spokesman Alan Etter called the temporary loss of the fireboat “a big deal.”

In 2012, the inspector general’s office savaged DCFEMS’ maintenance efforts. Records were missing, according to the report, and the hull hadn’t been properly checked after the dinner boat crash. The inspector urged the department to either fix the boat or replace it, noting that it lagged behind other jurisdictions in speed, firefighting, and accident and terrorist response abilities.

Two years later, though, neither has happened. When the Office of the Inspector General checked last month on whether District agencies were following their recommendations, DCFEMS responded that the hull inspections and repairs were on hold. DCFEMS spokesman Timothy Wilson tells LL the department is still waiting to obtain more than $700,000 in government funds for ship repair. Wilson couldn’t say how long it would take for the money to be available for the boat, or what repairs still need to be made.

In the meantime, the Glenn sits unused, replaced by two smaller fireboats with less pumping capacity. Given the fire department’s troubles fixing its ambulances—the department endured a scandal last year as ambulances burst into flames or were repaired with street signs—LL thinks it could be a while.

Taking the Glenn out of commission doesn’t just create a vulnerability to freak boat fires, though. It could also hamper the District’s efforts to rescue people from the city’s two rivers.

A 2011 fire department report estimated that 5,000 people can be on the water during any given night during the summer busy season. If anything went wrong on one of those ships, the inspector general report says the Glenn would be the ideal fire department ship for a rescue operation. One unnamed official in the 2012 inspector general report imagines the Glenn helping in a freak plane crash, like the 2009 Hudson River landing that made Sully Sullenberger a household name.

The fireboat’s absence is also felt in the nearby Gangplank Marina houseboat community, which features 310 boat slips for people who eschew life on land. Darryl Madden, a longtime resident of the Gangplank, got a helping hand from DCFEMS boat crews last year after a mechanic inadvertently started a fire on his boat.

Madden returned from work in March 2013 to find his floating home ablaze and being towed out to the channel by another fireboat in an attempt to stop the fire from spreading to other boats. With Madden’s boat safely away from its neighbors, the Glenn opened up its water cannons to extinguish the fire. The fire destroyed Madden’s floating home, but he says he’s grateful for DCFEMS personnel who stopped the fire from spreading.

Now back at the Gangplank with a new boat, Madden says he’s concerned that the Glenn can no longer serve District residents who live just a few piers away.

“Much as people who live on what we call ‘The Hard’ have fire apparatus to serve their public safety needs, we have fire safety needs, as well,” Madden says.

Given what District landlubbers have experienced from DCFEMS, LL has some advice for Gangplank residents hoping for the Glenn’s return: Buy a fire extinguisher.

Photo by Tim Evanson, CC 2.0 Attribution