The Detroit River stretches 24 nautical miles, dividing the U.S. and Canada and serving as an important connector between two of America’s Great Lakes. It’s a busy shipping route, populated by Great Lakes freighters up to 1,000 feet long, giant saltwater cargo ships from foreign countries and thousands of recreational boaters. The city of Detroit’s bustling riverfront area and skyscrapers sit along its shores. It is here, docked in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge, you’ll find the Curtis Randolph, standing guard.
For more than 100 years, fireboats have protected Detroit. The city’s first four firefighting vessels were powered by steam engines. In service since 1979, the Curtis Randolph is the first to be equipped with diesel engines. The 75-foot long fireboat has a 22-foot wide aluminum hull and can travel at speeds up to 19 knots (22 MPH). During 2015 it made nearly 60 runs. Wherever there’s a marine-related emergency, the Randolph is more than ready to assist.
Going above and beyond
The fireboat’s two-person crew serves primarily as mariners, carrying firefighters to a blaze or meeting them at the scene and providing an essential (and endless) water supply directly from the river. In addition to responding to shoreline and shipboard fires, the Randolph helps the Detroit police on dive operations and the U.S. Coast Guard on rescue missions. Occasionally, the fireboat carries medical emergency technicians from shore to a ship. It’s also ready to respond in the event of hazardous material spills and terrorist attacks.
The Curtis Randolph’s territory covers the entire length of the Detroit River. On several occasions, the Detroit Fire Department has sent the Randolph across the border when requested. The city of Windsor lies across the river from Detroit, one of the few places a Canadian city is located directly south of an American city. When Windsor’s Holiday Inn burst into flames in the late 1990s, the Curtis Randolph became the only current U.S. fireboat that has fought a fire on foreign soil.
The Randolph is an extremely effective firefighting tool. Bow thrusters make the vessel highly maneuverable, with the ability to move the boat sideways, or rotate 360 degrees in its own length. The vessel is equipped with six Detroit Diesel 2-Cycle engines. Twin 12V Series 149 engines provide main propulsion, two 12V Series 71 engines power the water pumps and two 3-cylinder Series 71 engines power the ship’s generators.
Four high-powered water deluge guns are on deck, capable of shooting water and firefighting foam. A 50-foot aerial ladder is also onboard, with a hydraulic water nozzle that can spray 1,000 gallons a minute. With three low-pressure pumps and one high-pressure pump, the fireboat can be used as a portable fire hydrant, pumping water directly from the Detroit River at 10,000 gallons per minute. The pumps can also augment a building’s fire system pipes, providing high pressure and an endless water supply to Detroit skyscrapers as tall as the 73-floor Renaissance Center.
Always on call
To ensure rapid response, Randolph crewmembers take 24-hour shifts in a firehouse located next to the dock. Three two-person crews, consisting of captain and deckhand, rotate shifts through the week. Keeping a 75-foot fireboat in top condition is constant work. Each captain and deckhand knows how to perform routine service and preventive maintenance, such as changing filters and pump propellers. For more technical engine work, local MTU distributor W.W.Williams is called into action.
W.W.Williams has been supporting the Curtis Randolph since it was commissioned in 1979, performing warranty work and emergency repairs. “Thanks to the design of those engines and the boat, it’s always mission-capable. It can get started in a moment’s notice,” said Ron Taylor, marine product sales and applications manager for W.W.Williams. “It’s a lot like a fire truck that sits in the firehouse. When the bell goes off, those guys can jump on, fire it up, and off they go. One of the biggest benefits of its two-cycle engines is the rapid start and there is no need to wait around for things to warm up.”
Winter hibernation is not an option
In about five minutes, the Curtis Randolph can start up, take up its lines and head out on the water. It’s the same time it takes for firefighters to get from the nearest engine and ladder company to arrive at the Randolph’s dock. During the winter months when ice forms and freighters no longer cruise the river, the Randolph is placed in storage. The plumbing is drained and bubblers below the vessel churn up the water to prevent ice formation.
It’s a testament to the resilience of its Detroit Diesel 2-Cycle engines that the vessel is not totally out of commission in the off-season. In the event of a major emergency, it would take only 30-45 minutes to get the boat up and running and head out on the Detroit River, capable of pushing through the ice with its powerful engines and reinforced bow.
Scott Reynolds, deckhand on the Curtis Randolph, has firsthand experience with the legendary engines, both from his two-and-a-half seasons on the Randolph and while serving for the Coast Guard in the beginning of his career. “Detroit Diesel 2-Cycle engines are tried and true. The engines we have on the Randolph are still like brand new. Our main engines have about 2,500 hours on them, and if you know anything about diesel engines, you’d know that’s hardly broke in.”
A river’s rebirth and rewards
Boasting a sturdy design and legendary diesel engines, the Randolph has many years ahead of it. Its mission to protect the people of Detroit is still as important as ever. As downtown Detroit continues its resurgence, the riverfront area is growing with new parks, businesses and high-rises. Reynolds is proud to be a part of the city’s rebirth, and finds being at the helm of the Randolph deeply rewarding.
“Firefighters live to do their job,” says Reynolds. “You can go from sweeping the firehouse floors, to getting a call and in 15 seconds you’re operating at breakneck speed. For a guy who is very passionate about firefighting and sailing this is a culmination of both jobs. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
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