Although the sun shone brightly over Tower Park Marina on Friday afternoon, brisk winds kept the temperature chilly as the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office Boating Unit joined firefighters from across the county for a training exercise.
“This was a three-day training scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” said Sgt. Jose Aleman of the sheriff’s office. “We had to cancel on Wednesday due to weather, so we’re going to pick up a day next week.”
The first part of the training gave the firefighters a chance to familiarize themselves with the sheriff’s office’s fire boat, according to Woodbridge Fire District Chief Steve Butler, as well as Woodbridge Fire’s boat.
“The second part of the drill is on boat fires in one of these stalls and the operations that have to take place to get that fire out,” Butler said as he gestured to sheds that covered the boat docks along the marina. “It gives our mutual aid companies an idea of what it’ll be like.”
Although Tower Park Marina falls under Woodbridge Fire’s jurisdiction, Butler said other fire districts such as Linden-Peters, Mokelumne, Morada and Liberty often do not respond to as many fires near rivers as Woodbridge’s firefighters.
“(This training) gives our mutual aid companies an idea of what it’ll be like,” Butler said. “If they come out with us, they’ll know what to expect when they get here.”
The fire departments hold these trainings every three months, Butler said, with each agency receiving a different assignment.
“Due to the recent fire out here, we’re doing the training here at Tower Park,” Butler said.
The firefighters joined Aleman on the sheriff’s boat, which comes equipped with four nozzles for water cannons — two in the front and two in the back — as well as a large cannon on the boat’s roof, two rolls of fire hose and a pump in the back to draw water from the river.
The sheriff’s boat — which can hold between 15 and 20 people along with their equipment — also features a forward-looking infrared radiometer on its roof, which Aleman said was used during the Tower Park fire in February to identify hot spots.
The boating unit also has six smaller boats docked at the marina, although they lack firefighting capabilities.
“This boat is more mission-specific,” Aleman said. “We use it pretty much every major holiday weekend in the summer.”
In addition to patrolling the marina and assisting with firefighting efforts — where the fire boat serves as a mobile command center — Aleman said the boating unit also takes the vessel to Fleet Week in San Francisco every October.
“We use this same boat for security in the Port of Stockton as well,” Aleman said.
When responding to a land fire near the marina, Aleman said the boat can position itself right on the riverbank allowing its cannons to pump between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of water per minute onto the fire.
“With the Tower Park fire, we were able to maintain our position outside the dock,” Aleman said.
Woodbridge Fire’s boat is smaller than the sheriff’s boat, and features a single water cannon in the front as well as two containers with life jackets and rain gear.
“We take this out for boat fires, structure fires and grass fires,” Woodbridge firefighter Justin Nasselo said.
After inspecting the two boats, the firefighters made their way from the docks back to land where Woodbridge Fire Lt. Dan Schmierer briefed them on the second part of their training.
Working in teams of two, one firefighter walked down to an orange cone near the farthest shed of the dock to throw a “rescue rope bag” — often used to rescue people stranded in the water — across the river to another firefighter standing next to the engine on dry land who then tied the rope to a fire hose, allowing the firefighter on the dock to drag the hose across the water.
Schmierer said this particular method takes less time to get the hose to a fire than to run the hose along the only walkway, known as a “gangway,” in the center of the dock.
“To drop a line from here and go all the way down is probably 500 or 600 feet,” Schmierer said as he stood on the gangway.
Schmierer watched from land as Capt. Brandon Ruegsegger tossed the rope bag to Engineer Martin Garcia — both of Linden-Peters — who stood next to the fire engine and tied the rope to the fire hose.
Ruegsegger and Garcia took their time with the exercise, prioritizing safety over speed as they focused on performing the drill correctly and preventing the fire captain from falling into the water.
“There’s no set time they’re trying to focus on,” Schmierer said. “Right now it’s about trying to set them up for success later.”
Having successfully completed the first drill, Ruegsegger and Garcia rolled up the hose line and drove their engine closer to the gangway where they practiced “drafting” — connecting the engine to a pipe that runs into the water using a “hard suction line” that allows them to use the river as a water source when fighting fires.
“It has a coil in it so that when they draft and suck water through it, it’s like a big straw, it won’t collapse,” said Woodbridge Fire Lt. Josh McClelland of the hard suction line.
Ruegsegger helped Garcia pack up their hard suction line after finishing their second drill, and said he enjoyed visiting a different part of the county and practicing different techniques than those he and his fellow Linden-Peters firefighters typically use.
“I just love when we go along to do these multi-jurisdictional trainings,” Ruegsegger said. “I learned a lot about safety in and around the docks, and some of the expectations we could possibly encounter due to the fact that we don’t have any docks in Linden like these guys do.”