I had to wait a while before posting about this incident because I am a little too close to it. By now many of you have seen or heard about the DUK boat accident that happened on the Delaware River yesterday afternoon. This incident happened in the area of Philadelphia where I worked for many years until my recent transfer. I know just about all of the firefighters who were involved in the rescue efforts and in fact my old company from Chinatown was among the first on scene. As always, they did a tremendous job under what can only be described as extremely difficult circumstances. It took a combined effort of many different rescue personnel to avert an even bigger loss of life this time around.
This incident illustrates what those of us in emergency services know all too well: That bad things happen even on nice days. Philadelphia’s waterfront (both of them) are increasingly becoming more and more vibrant. Yet as this incident points out it only takes a split second for things to go wrong. This incident is literally only a few hundred feet from the U.S. Coast Guard station at Washington Avenue that also houses the Philadelphia Fire Department Marine Unit One. Yet Marine Unit One only has a pilot and an engineer on duty at any given time. For the boat to get underway it must first wait until a land-based engine company arrives. That company is usually Engine 3, located about three blocks away. But since the Nutter administration closed Engine 1 and Engine 8 (two of Engine 3’s perimeter companies) it’s even money if Engine 3 is available when a river emergency comes in. They can just as easily be out on the street answering another call.
As you can hear from the audio portion of this video people are in the water and sadly some are drowning. More could easily have died had the current been swifter, or the weather a bit more inclement, or the wreck more violent. It’s times like this where seconds literally count. Luckily there wasn’t a larger number of small children on board. Over the years I would see these DUK’s riding around town full of school children and shudder to think what would happen if there was an accident on the busy Delaware River. Now we know. We were lucky, again. A few years ago another incident on the Philadelphia waterfront left three people dead when a pier collapsed. The owners were convicted of various charges because they knew the pier was in poor repair. That time it was at night and again only through sheer determination and the selfless determination of the rescuers was a larger tragedy averted.
When will our elected officials understand that cuts in emergency services cost lives? Our Marine Unit’s mission has changed over the years yet the city refuses to acknowledge it. Instead of pier or ship fires (the 1950’s mission) today it’s about water rescue as thousands flock to our revitalized waterfronts. Yet our fireboats have no divers assigned. We have little swift water capability until specialized units like Rescue 1 get on scene. Yet Rescue 1 has city-wide firefighting obligations. We can’t keep a multi-million dollar fire boat tied to the pier waiting for a company to show up while international tourists are swept away in the murky Delaware. The companies cut by the Nutter administration would have played a significant part in yesterday’s tragedy, especially Engine 8. The cuts the PFD has endured cause a chain reaction of vacant areas within the city when a large incident like this hits. If a simultaneous event occurs, things get bad very quickly – as with last weeks storms. In the middle of a heat wave our EMS system is already on the verge of collapse, then this happens.
Note the frustration in the person’s voice as he tries desperately to explain the simple facts of the incident to the 911 operator. Key words should have tipped the call taker immediately: PENN’S LANDING, BOATS, PEOPLE IN THE WATER, BARGE. This also highlights the fact that the alarm room is also understaffed and overworked. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard phone calls like that in Philadelphia. The need for professionalism throughout all ranks of the emergency services as well as adequate resources is paramount. Perhaps some of the America Re-investment and Recovery Act funds could be diverted to things that are important. Nahhh.