Sliding up the pole

AFTER THE REPORTERS and cameras left, after fire officials and city politicians departed, there was firefighter Dick Chester the next morning, the world in his hands.

That part of the world, anyway, with mile after mile of some of the most expensive boats, homes, marinas, and businesses anywhere. If there is a fire like one a week earlier that sent a small navy of pleasure boats to the bottom of Lake Union, Chester, 52, and his fireboat Alki, 75, are the city's new hope.

"Some people have the idea we don't do a lot," says Chester, a "boatie," as other firefighters have amiably nicknamed the water crews. He stood in the brass-laden wheelhouse of the Seattle Fire Department's aged backup boat the day after it was moved to Fishermen's Terminal and praised at a press conference. "But when they do call us, they need us real bad."

It was a political decision that took the last Seattle fireboat off freshwater in 1935—a budget cut—and it was a political decision that suddenly brought one back Friday, in reaction to complaints about a delayed response to the May 17 marina fire. The hurried result is this:

The terminal has no fire crew housing, so, when alerted by pagers, five boaties from Station 5 stationed at Elliott Bay's central waterfront will jump in a Chevy Suburban. With lights and siren engaged, they'll race up Alaskan Way to Elliott Avenue, then onto 15th Northwest, take the Emerson Street overpass, weave through the terminal parking lot, drive onto the dock, and board the Alki.

Then they'll respond to the fire. In terms of strategy, it's a little like sliding up the pole when the alarm rings.

Chester and a second engineer will have the Alki already fired up— two engineers spend 24-hour shifts at the new temporary terminal (one sleeps on a cushion in the wheelhouse—keeping an ear cocked for the bilge alarm—the other in a recreational vehicle on the dock).

The department figures it takes 15 to 20 minutes from the moment the alarm sounds for a fully crewed Alki to be steaming into the Ship Canal. Chester thinks the boat could leave sooner if the crew arrived earlier. But even that would have to happen in a perfect world.

If the fire crew is out on Elliott Bay on the primary fireboat, Chief Seattle, as they often are for a waterfront drill or equipment check, says Chester, and an alarm comes in for the Alki, "they'd have to decide either to return to the station and drive here or take the Chief through the locks." If it's the latter, you could have another May 17, when it took 50 minutes for the Chief Seattle to arrive on Lake Union.

Mayor Greg Nickels wasn't promising any miracles, at least. "It's a step in the right direction," he said Friday. "We've got a lot of work to do to come up with a replacement that will work better in the long term."

Chester, a firefighter for 30 years, 10 on the boats, is one of those working on that better plan. As senior chief engineer, he's hip to the city's funding and equipment requirements. The irony is that everything he needs is here, but he can't have it.

Three 39-foot fast-response fireboats are being built by Kvichak Marine in Fremont, just a half-mile up the Ship Canal. A $9 million tractor-tug fireboat is under construction at Nichols Brothers boats on Whidbey Island.

But they're being built for Los Angeles. When completed, the craft will give L.A. a total of five state-of-the-art fireboats.

Seattle will still have two older boats. They'll continue to cover twice the shoreline of L.A.'s boats and alternately spend up to four weeks annually in the shipyard.

The reason? L.A.'s boats are financed by the Port of Los Angeles. Here, the city must pay for new boats, though Port of Seattle harbor operations are among the primary recipients of the benefits. A Seattle Fire Department spokesperson says, "The Port gives us funding, but not near enough for a new boat."

That could require another political decision. Chester will leave that to someone else. He's busy getting the Alki humming this sunny morning, awaiting that first call. "We've been wanting to come back for years," he says. "We're ready as can be."

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