At Robbins Reef Yacht Club one red boat stands out among the dozen others that bob in Newark Bay. The vessel is 27 feet long, but raised on a travel lift it looks bigger. The top is outfitted with a searchlight, thermal imaging gear, and emergency flashing lights. At the front is a pump that can draw water at 680 gallons per minute. It’s the Bayonne Fireboat.
Bayonne Fire Chief Keith Weaver greets us on the dock along with Deputy Chief Steve Peterson, Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Ferrante, and Firefighters Ben Lopez, Michael Pelliccio, and Daniel Ruiz. They’re the crew from Engine 4 at the 16th Street Fire House. Weaver tells me that this boat does more than just respond to Bayonne emergencies.
“We’re part of the New Jersey Marine Task Force (NJMTF),” Weaver explains. “FEMA, Port Security, in conjunction with Port Authority identified a response gap, and they began to beef up assets in the New York New Jersey Harbor area.”
The BFD applied to be part of protecting the harbor and received a grant in 2012 that covers the boat, fuel, and maintenance. In 2016 the NJMTF started official operations.
“Joining the marine task force is authorized by the mayor, public safety director Kubert, and the city council,” Weaver says. “They are advocates for public safety, and we appreciate that. This is all possible because of their support.”
“There are 12 midsize boats such as this in 12 New Jersey municipalities,” Weaver says, listing Carteret, Edgewater, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Jersey City, Kearny, Linden, Newark, North Hudson, Perth Amboy, and Secaucus as the other members of the task force.
“Our area of response is the Passaic River, The Hackensack River, as far up as is navigable, the entire Newark Bay, we go down the Kill until the area just about between Elizabeth and Linden,” Peterson says. “We cover New York Harbor on a first alarm basis all the way down to the Statue of Liberty, and we cover everywhere else on the second alarm. Because we’re situated right in the middle of the entire region, we go everywhere.”
“Now, through the task force we have a codified and formalized response to emergencies on the water very similar to a land based fire department response,” Weaver says. That means that when a 911 call comes through on the New Jersey side of the harbor three task force boats are dispatched. “It could be a person in the water, it could be a boat fire, it could be a loose boat, any type of maritime emergency,” Weaver says, adding that they work in conjunction with the Coast Guard.
All Hands on Deck
The crew from Engine 4 lowers the boat from the lift. It deploys in less than 30 seconds. They explain that storing the boat out of saltwater cuts down on maintenance. Even in this relaxed situation, the trio works swiftly and wordlessly repeating the steps they’ve taken in countless emergency situations.
While all Bayonne firefighters receive water rescue training in the academy, many firefighters who are stationed at Engine 4 have Coast Guard certified captain’s licenses and receive ongoing training.
We set out with Lopez at the wheel. As we enter the deeper waters of the bay we pick up speed. The fireboat can go about 45 miles per hour. We aren’t going quite that fast, but on the water it feels a lot faster as the two 250 horsepower engines drive us forward.
Peterson points out an area where they responded to a recent emergency. A person on the crew of a tugboat was in medical distress and had to be brought to land to receive care. In a situation like that, the call comes through North Hudson Regional Fire Department, which dispatches to the Marine Task Force.
“With the summer there’s increased traffic on the water,” Pelliccio says. “We see everything from stranded jet skiers to overzealous kayakers.”
Pelliccio is referring to two of the 19 calls that the fireboat has responded to this year. In one, family members called in that a pair of young people never returned from kayaking. “They managed to get themselves onto a barge, soaking wet and freezing cold,” Peterson says; they were otherwise unharmed.
The other call involved a sinking jet ski. Luckily the pair aboard it called 911 before they were completely submerged. The fireboat responded quickly to save the couple.
“Every day at the firehouse is just a little bit different, and then you add the marine component,” Weaver says.
The fireboat makes its way around the peninsula and under the Bayonne Bridge. From the water IMTT looks enormous. It’s a unique view of our town. “We’re five square miles of water essentially,” Weaver says. “Bayonne has its roots in the maritime industry. A lot of it is now turning toward recreation, but it’s a huge area of commerce on the water.”
Recreation and commerce meet at Cape Liberty Cruise Port, where cruise ships rely on the Bayonne Fireboat when they disembark.
“Right now it’s the height of cruise season,” Peterson says. Risks abound as ships set sail, ranging from excited passengers waving from the rails to busy dockworkers pulling the fenders from enormous vessels. The fireboat stands by in case of emergency until cruise ships exit New Jersey waters. “We provide a degree of safety for the cruise ships,” Peterson says. “The port appreciates what we do for them, as well as the cruise ship companies.”
Returning to Port
As we make our way around Bayonne, the sky darkens. We pull up to the dock as a storm rolls in, and a few drops of rain begin to fall. But the guys from Engine 4 don’t run for cover like we do. They have to head back to Cape Liberty where another cruise ship is departing. After that they have to ready the boat for the downpour. “Fire Department emergency response is 24/7/365 and in all weather conditions,” Weaver says. “The men and women of the fire department work tirelessly every day to keep our community safe”—BLP
Firefighter Ben Lopez at the wheel
Firefighter Michael Pelliccio
Firefighter Daniel Ruiz guides the boat in.
Firefighter Pelliccio suits up.
Deputy Fire Chief Steve Peterson (left) and Fire Chief Keith Weaver