N.S. fire boat that capsized in calm harbour lacked stability, report says

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HALIFAX - A small, high-powered fire boat that capsized in Halifax harbour last fall, dumping several firefighters into the water, had limited stability and it took only a small amount of force to tip it over, the Transportation Safety Board says in a report released Wednesday.
No one was hurt when the new 8.5-metre Firehawk flipped in calm conditions on Sept. 17, 2008 - the third day of training exercises and performance trials.
As well, the boat was not overloaded and would have met Canadian safety standards, the board's final report said.
But the board's lead investigator, Don Eaves, said those standards, based on rules from the International Organization for Standardization, do not provide a good indication of a craft's true stability.
"Small vessels that are assessed solely against these standards may meet the criteria yet have insufficient stability," the report says.
That's why the board conducted a comprehensive, computerized test based on stability standards traditionally used by the international maritime community.
The tests revealed that the speedy, $250,000 craft was not inherently stable, having failed to meet virtually every minimum requirement in the test, known in the industry as the Stab 6 standard.
"It only took a very small force for the vessel to heel over," Eaves said in an interview. "It didn't do particularly well in that test."
According to the tender document, the vessel had to be capable of operating in 60 kilometre-per-hour winds and three-metre waves.
On the day of the capsizing, the harbour was calm. But the firefighter at the controls of the vessel ran into trouble when he steered to port, or left, in a slow, tight turn in Dartmouth Cove.
As the fibreglass boat leaned into the turn, the driver was told to apply more throttle, but the boat continued to roll to port as the thrust was applied and it quickly overturned.
Three of the eight people aboard - most of them firefighters - quickly surfaced. The other five were briefly trapped in the boat's pilothouse.
They were all rescued by a Canadian Coast Guard fast-rescue craft, stationed nearby.
The Firehawk was built by Harbour Guard Boats of Costa Mesa, Calif.
Harbor Guard vice-president Tim Spooner, who was on the boat when it capsized, believes the TSB didn't pay enough attention to operator error.
"It just seemed like they skipped the whole operator issue," he told the Halifax Chronicle Herald. "He tried to manoeuvre this boat like a small boat."
Spooner said he did tell the firefighter to throttle up when the boat started to keel, but he also told him to get out of the turn.
"He didn't turn out of the turn," he said.
Spooner said the boat has performed well worldwide and did fine in the earlier testing runs in Halifax, some of which occurred in rough seas with 30-knot winds.
Guy Bussieres, a senior investigator with the board, said Canada's safety standards for small boats do not take into account some risk factors.
"Maybe that would be a good idea for Transport Canada to revisit the standards applicable to small commercial vessels," he said.
Transport Canada proposed new small vessel regulations in April, and the department is now reviewing comments from interested parties.
There are approximately 50,000 small commercial vessels operating in Canada, the department says.
Halifax fire Chief Bill Mosher issued a brief statement Wednesday saying the fire service had expected the Firehawk to pass the harbour trials.
"We are disappointed that this was not the case and we are very grateful that the incident didn't result in a more serious situation," he said.
"The purchase and sale agreement of the boat was not completed and the money remains in reserve with no immediate plans to purchase a firefighting vessel."
Meanwhile, the safety board has issued an advisory to the City of Winnipeg, which it says apparently operates a boat similar to Firehawk 28. It says the fire service "may wish to have its own vessel's stability assessed to ensure that it is safe."
Halifax regional council had earlier approved the purchase of the Firehawk from a local supplier representing Harbour Guard Boats based on a recommendation from the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service.
At the time, the fire service said a comparable boat couldn't be built locally.
But controversy erupted when Nova Scotia boat builders complained there were at least three companies in the province that could build a suitable boat for rescues and firefighting close to shore.
Halifax regional Coun. Steve Streatch, whose district on the Eastern Shore includes many boat builders, said the report confirms what many people already knew.
"It points out some of the concerns that were raised in the last two years were warranted," he said.
"From the beginning, we were warned by local boat builders that the design and other issues surrounding stability of this boat were things that really needed to be looked at. ... We have generations of boat building in Nova Scotia, and this is a case where we should have paid more attention."
He said he raised these concerns with council, but it went ahead with a purchase that seemed extravagant.
"In my mind, it was the Corvette of fire boats, but in this case a work truck would have done the job."
The 4,000-kilogram boat is about three metres wide and is propelled by two 250-horsepower outboard engines and a 315 horsepower inboard jet drive.

Organizations: Transportation Safety Board, International Organization for Standardization, Transport Canada Canadian Coast Guard Halifax Chronicle Herald Halifax regional council Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Service

Geographic location: HALIFAX, Canada, Costa Mesa, Calif. Nova Scotia Winnipeg

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Recent comments

  • John
    March 01, 2010 - 14:40

    FIre Service organizations accross the country and in the States always seem to want the fanciest, flashiest toys available regardless of cost. They fail to determine the real needs and the taxpayer costs so they can show off the snazziest equipment. They always justify exact costs by claiming the are protecting the public when they are stroking their own bloated egos.