2 Long Beach Fireboats Gathering Rust

Times Staff Writer

After spending $4.4 million for two state-of-the-art fireboats, the Port of Long Beach is struggling to keep the vessels from becoming floating rust buckets.

The fireboats Liberty and Challenger, delivered to the city within the last 17 months, have rusty pipes and fittings because of poor quality control and workmanship, according to a report prepared by a corrosion engineer hired by the port.

"In a number of instances, the commonly accepted principles of good corrosion and marine engineering have been overlooked," the report states. "Neither care, quality control nor attention to specification were observed."

The boats, capable of pumping 10,000 gallons of water or foam a minute from five water cannons, have been plagued by other problems. The Liberty was put out of service for about a month after an engine room accident caused more than $15,000 damage. While in the yard, one of the drive shafts had to be realigned.

Long Beach firefighters who man the boats are discouraged by their losing battle against rust on the 88-foot vessels, which were toasted into service last year with a champagne christening ceremony attended by about 700 dignitaries and guests.

"When the pipes start falling off before you've had this thing a year, it's rather embarrassing and rather dangerous," said one Liberty crewman.

Disappointment runs so deep that a "Fireboats for Sale" advertisement tacked to the bulletin board at the home base of the red-and-black Challenger had scrawled across the top: "Sell the red ones. Keep the gray ones."

The port's two venerable but outmoded gray fireboats were recently sold after protecting the harbor for 33 years.

Moss Point Marine Inc. in Escataupa, Miss., won the contract to build the new ships after bidding $135,000 less than four other shipyards.

Vince Almerico, vice president of Moss Point Marine, defended the boats as meeting construction specifications. If the port wanted entirely rust-free vessels, he said, it could have specified use of stainless steel for everything at a much higher cost.

In his report to the port in January, engineer George E. Moller of Palos Verdes Estates noted that in some cases carbon steel bolts and valves had been used instead of the corrosion-resistant stainless steel. In other instances, corrosion resulted from the joining of incompatible metal alloys, he said.

In addition, the grade of stainless steel used in fire mains and fire pumps on the boats is "not resistant to seawater" and is susceptible to corrosion, he said. The stainless steel piping on both boats is leaking at the welds.

The boats, Moller concluded, are "not of marine quality, durability and dependability. They will be a continuing maintenance expense and of questionable durability. Major re-outfitting is going to be required."

Port officials have pledged to make all the repairs recommended by the engineer, even though one boat is no longer under warranty and they are unsure whether they can make warranty claims on the other.

The city-operated port, which pays expenses on the boats and leaves their operation to the Long Beach Fire Department, has yet to estimate the cost of repairs, some of which are already complete.

Officials are still trying to decide whom to blame--the boats' designers or builders, or themselves.

"I don't know who to the point the finger at at this time," said Dan Allen, the port's director of engineering design and development. "We hired a naval architect and they provided the (quality control) inspection services for us. Some of this is not necessarily the contractor's lack of quality; it may not have been specified in the plans."

One thing officials cannot yet complain of is the two boats' performance in an emergency--neither has had to fight a major blaze, although both were designed to handle everything from a wharf fire to a supertanker explosion.

If either boat were ever out of service, the Los Angeles City Fire Department's five fireboats, which serve the Port of Los Angeles, would be able to respond under a mutual aid agreement.

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