The distress calls coming from the world’s largest freshwater lake in dense fog or the cover of night can be tricky for Duluth-based rescuers who are compelled to respond.
But now, with a new night-vision fire and rescue boat equipped to handle the big waves on the big lake, Duluth firefighters will be able to more easily find boaters in trouble, as well as administer full emergency medical aid once they reach them.
They are just two of the new capabilities on the tricked-out Marine 19, a 32-foot “all-hazard” vessel custom designed by Lake Assault Boats in Superior, Wis. It is the only one of its kind on western Lake Superior.
The boat, named for 19 firefighters who lost their lives while on duty with the department, will help with search and rescue efforts, medical evacuation, firefighting on the water and environmental emergencies such as oil spills.
It fills gaps in those services identified by the U.S. Coast Guard for the Twin Ports and the western tip of Lake Superior, said Duluth Fire Department Deputy Chief Scott Kleive.
Now they can fight fires on smaller vessels that don’t have their own suppression systems — something that isn’t part of the Coast Guard’s mission, Kleive said.
And if someone is having a heart attack or other emergency, Duluth firefighters — who are also trained emergency medical technicians — can rush to them with a full complement of supplies, pull them aboard the new boat and use defibrillators, oxygen or other lifesaving measures.
Infrared cameras that can detect a seagull 100 yards away will help responders find distressed boaters in the dark or heavy fog.
The boat will also help fight fires in hard-to-reach places on shore, including the busy port. In addition to using trucks for structure fires, the new boat can shoot water 300 feet, blasting up to 2,000 gallons of water a minute from the lake’s unlimited supply.
“Duluth is a 26-mile-long waterfront community … with roughly 49 miles of shoreline” within the port, Kleive said. “Our only access to that has been a 12-foot inflatable boat with a 25-horsepower motor.”
The $597,000 vessel was funded with nearly $150,000 in local donations and about $448,000 through a 2016 port security grant from FEMA. The Coast Guard’s local station helped identify it as a priority need.
“Coast Guard small boats are not designed to do firefighting, not designed to do chemical hazard response,” said Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Drayer. The new boat adds more capability in the event of other large emergencies on the water, too, he said. “This gives us a huge force multiplier. … It’s not just the Coast Guard that’s going to be able to respond.”
It’s important to businesses — and waterfront residents — too, said Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
“The continuity of port operations is important,” she said. One day of shutting down the port because of a waterfront fire, explosion or chemical spill, for instance, would mean $4.7 million in lost business revenue, she said. “The port ... is really one of the region’s major economic drivers.”
That’s why the Port Authority contributed the first chunk of local-match money totaling nearly $15,000 and launched a fundraising campaign for the rest, she said.
Residents on Park Point benefit, too, she added, as there is no longer a fire station on the spit of land across the Lift Bridge.
“If I was a homeowner out there, I would like to know that they have some waterfront firefighting capability,” she said.
Firefighters have been training on the new boat for more than a month.