The floating fire station: A look at SFFD's first-of-its kind Fireboat Station No. 35
Just north of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, the new Fireboat Station No. 35 will serve the city with its three fireboats and rescue watercraft
There are very strong currents in the San Francisco Bay. In fact, when the tide ebbs and floods, it can get up to 6 knots – sometimes reaching as far as the Golden Gate Bridge.
These conditions can be dangerous for even the most experienced voyager. Recreational sea kayakers and windsurfers, unfamiliar with the unforgiving Bay, often find themselves in a precarious position. Kayakers can easily tire from fighting the currents and windsurfers can float out as far as the Golden Gate if an equipment failure occurs.
Compounding the issue, the water temperature in the cooler months hovers around 50 degrees. An individual can become hypothermic quickly if they are not used to being out in the water.
Thankfully, the San Francisco Fire Department's fireboat pilots assigned to Fire Station 35 know the Bay like the back of their hand. And with the nearly completed construction of the new Fireboat Station No. 35, a floating two-story, 14,900-square-foot building at Pier 22½, crews will have the ability to get on the water immediately and respond to emergencies even faster.
A San Francisco landmark
The original Fire Station 35 building, which has been designated as a city landmark, was constructed in 1915. Located along the city’s Embarcadero, the historic building holds special memories for many, but it has often been criticized as being too small and outdated to serve the city's and department's needs.
"It just has this great charm, but it is very small," said Shane Francisco, captain at Engine 35. "The doors are very narrow for modern apparatus, which generally don't fit in there. The engine we have is from 2002, and it was specially designed to fit in there. It's very narrow and short compared to a normal engine."
There will not be any alterations to the existing building, and the engine will still be housed and deployed from the station. However, the existing building does not meet today's seismic safety standards, meaning the station could be at risk of flooding if the sea level rises. Further, the dilapidated Piers 22½ and 24, which will be demolished, are hanging by a thread, Francisco said, adding, "it was time to get a new facility."
Because of its unique design, the floating fire station was designed to rise and fall with the natural tide of the Bay, king tides and projected sea-level rise, eliminating the flooding risk issue. And, with the new station, crews will be able to launch and respond within a minute, just like an engine leaving the firehouse.
"If a boat is on fire or a person is in the water, and we have a boat that goes 40 knots, then we can get there quickly and make it a response like a fire engine on land. That's the great thing about having a facility on the water," Francisco said.
The new floating fire station, according to Magdalena Ryor, San Francisco Public Works project manager for Fireboat Station No. 35, is thought to be the only structure of its kind in the world: "I don't think there will be another project like this. This is one of a kind," she said. "Building in the water … building on top of a float that moves with the rising tide … it doesn't get any more unique than that."
Constructing Fireboat Station No. 35
The $39.9 million project, funded by the Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response bond, passed with 79% approval of San Francisco voters in June 2014.
Fast-forward to 2019, the float – a steel barge that serves as Fireboat Station No. 35's foundation – was manufactured in Nantong, China. At 173 feet long and 95 feet wide, the float weighs an incredible 3.3 million pounds (1,650 tons).
Construction officially began in January 2020, after the float made its way across the Pacific to Pier 1 on Treasure Island. And after 11 months, the 14,900-square-foot-building – attached to two tugboats – made its final journey to Pier 22½ and was moored behind the historic Fire Station 35 building.
"It was a good process for this particular project because there were a lot of unknowns," Ryor noted. "We needed experts to take the lead, because it's something that we're building on the water."
Once the utilities are in place, fire crews will be able to move to the new station. "They may move in as early as August," Ryor said. However, the move-in date isn't set in stone – it all depends on how quickly the city can get the necessary permits.
The new station will accommodate a total of three fireboats, a dive boat and marine rescue watercraft.
Staffing the floating fire station
There are 21 members currently assigned to Fire Station No. 35, with seven members on shift at any given time. The Engine 35 crew, which staffs the fireboat, is made up of one officer and three firefighters.
"We have a fire department officer there on the boat always – they can't go anywhere,” Francisco said. “They always have to stay on the boat. They can't leave the station; they can't go shopping; they can't go to a training class; they have to stay there on the boat.”
And, when the boat goes out, the engine goes out of service and crewmembers jump on the boat to serve as deckhands. "We do the lines, we squirt the water, we get the bodies out of the water, that kind of thing," Francisco explained.
If the Engine 35 crew is out on a call, then they dispatch the next closest engine, which is usually Engine 8. "They come out and they'll man the boat,” Francisco added. “We have monthly drills so that they become familiar with different portions of the boat.”
Additionally, there is a fireboat crew, including one officer, a fireboat marine pilot and fireboat marine engineer.
Francisco shared that they hired from the marine industry: "Typically, we don't get a pilot with less than 20 years from the private industry, and our engineers are certified engineers. They have just been fabulous for us. Those boats float because of them and the work they do."
The new station couldn't have come at a better time, Francisco said, as marine calls have gone up in the past few years: "A few years ago, they were probably doing 115 calls a year. Last year, they did 220. It's time for a new facility. It's time for a dedicated marine facility. It's time to modernize and get facilities that can go with the calls we're doing."
The new station, he added, is more important than ever as the waterfront continues to expand with residential and business high-rises.
Out with the old, in with the new
On the south side of Fireboat Station No. 35, a waterfront observation deck was included for San Franciscans and tourists to enjoy. A sculpture will also be located on the observation deck.
"It's spectacular," Ryor said.
The San Francisco Arts Commission conducted the selection process and, ultimately, Hood Design Studio Inc.'s sculpture design was selected by the panel, which features the bow of a ship extending over the observation deck.
"People would be able to walk around it and it will have glass panels in the middle of it showing photographs of firefighters' history and operations," Ryor shared.
The deck, she said, will be accessible to the public 24/7. During the day, the public will also be able to access an area that will include two informational panels describing firefighting operations.
"A lot of that area will be accessible to the public that wasn't accessible before," Ryor said, specifying that there will be close to 3,000 more square feet accessible to the public.
The additional space – both for the public as well as the fire crews – is a welcome and necessary change.
"We'll miss the charm of the old place, but we still have it. The crew is very excited to get to add to our water response capabilities," Francisco said.
In the meantime, crews will continue to train on the rescue watercraft and prepare for their eventual transition to the new station.
"We can't wait to get in there and occupy it," Francisco said.
Editor’s note: Would you volunteer to staff a floating fire station? Share your thoughts in the comments below.