Federal investigators probing elite LAFD fireboat unit

Elite Los Angeles Fire Department fireboat unit under federal investigation

Criminal investigators with the U.S. Coast Guard are probing an elite group of Los Angeles firefighters at the city's port to determine whether federal licensing records were falsified for crew members assigned to large fireboats, The Times has learned.

In June, a special agent of the Coast Guard Investigative Service requested 10 years of LAFD logs, journals and other records that document the operation of the department's fleet of five fireboats, according to a copy of the request obtained by The Times.

A internal LAFD memo sent last week said the investigation is focusing on whether “unidentified members" of the unit properly obtained Coast Guard licenses required by the city. 

Officials with the Coast Guard and the LAFD confirmed the investigation Tuesday but declined to provide details because the inquiry is ongoing.

LAFD spokesman Peter Sanders said his agency is "cooperating fully" with the investigation, and holding off on any internal review of the matter until federal agents have completed their work. 

The inquiry comes as the LAFD has been trying to restore confidence in how new department recruits are selected, following a Times investigation that raised concerns of nepotism and unfairness.

The specially trained and equipped fireboat units under scrutiny are stationed at firehouses near the Port of Los Angeles.

They conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea and fight waterfront fires, such as a Wilmington wharf blaze in September that paralyzed commerce and sent toxic smoke into neighboring communities.

The teams include scuba divers trained for underwater firefighting, as well as crews that operate the LAFD harbor-based fleet, including a 105-foot, water-cannon equipped boat described as “the world’s most powerful fireboat.”

Under city rules, pilots and mates assigned to the boats must first secure Coast Guard-issued licenses that involve specialized training, a written exam and verification of hundreds of hours of experience at sea.

Investigators are focusing on whether licensing paperwork documenting the time spent on the water by some firefighters was overstated, according to a source familiar with the investigation who declined to be named because of the ongoing inquiry.  The inquiry began after investigators received a tip, the source said.

Sanders said the LAFD conducted a similar internal investigation two years ago but was unable to substantiate allegations that records had been falsified.        

Chris Volkle, a commercial ship captain who heads Marine Fire Training, a Seattle-area academy that provides training for on-the-water firefighters, said most private maritime companies and fire departments have record books where training hours are documented.

"If that person driving that fireboat is unqualified" and lacks experience, Volkle said, "he could kill people."

LAFD fireboat jobs are highly paid assignments. Last year, the 15 pilots and mates at the port earned more than $210,000, on average, nearly half of that from overtime, according to a Times analysis of city payroll data.

Before he was named LAFD fire chief in July by Mayor Eric Garcetti, port operations were under the supervision of then-Asst. Chief Ralph M. Terrazas.

Terrazas has been briefed on the investigation, but had no comment on the investigation, Sanders said. 

The Coast Guard unit handling the case at the port is a federal law enforcement agency charged with pursuing maritime criminal activity.

Lt. Commander Joe Klinker, spokesman for the Coast Guard, said "the  investigation is active," which precludes additional comment by his agency. 

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