Henrico’s fire boat: an ambulance, engine company on the river

Marine unit ensures safety on lower James from new home at Rocketts Landing 

The bow of Henrico County’s fire boat lifts as firefighter Carlo Vernieri hits the accelerator, propelling the 32-foot-long vessel along a channel in the lower James River. 

After a quick, 180-degree turn, he accelerates again and imagines what workers on a nearby barge must think of the maneuvers.

“Whenever we get out, we should always be practicing something that requires quick thought,” he said. “It looks like it’s playing, but it’s not.” 

The fire boat plays an integral role for the Division of Fire, particularly when river activity increases with warm weather. The Marine Patrol Unit responds to a variety of emergencies, including fires, chemical spills and boaters who are stranded, lost or experiencing a medical problem. 

“We respond to anything that you would think a fire engine company would respond to, anything an ambulance would respond to, except we do it on the water,” Vernieri said. 

The fire boat has been based at Rocketts Landing since February. The marina allows the boat to remain on the water and offers good visibility, said Capt. Shawn Williams, who leads the Marine Patrol Unit. 

“We are constantly looking for new ways to provide service and to get out among the public,” he said. “This was identified as something to try. It is in our district [for Firehouse 2/Darbytown], so the response to it is quicker.”

In the past, the fire boat has been launched from a trailer at Osbourne Landing and Richmond Yacht Basin – both 10 or so miles downriver from Rocketts Landing.

As part of its move, Williams plans to collect data on response times and locations to determine whether Rocketts Landing is an optimum location. Until now, that kind of analysis has been impossible because information provided in calls for help – such as the emergency’s exact location – often is inaccurate or imprecise.

The fire boat has been deployed on about 33 emergency calls for service since 2017, including three since late April. The recent calls involved a vessel sunk and abandoned, a vessel collision and a vessel stuck on a sandbar.

The Marine Patrol Unit has primary responsibility for the stretch of the James from the Richmond Intermediate Terminal to the Appomattox River junction. As part of The Port of Virginia’s Maritime Incident Response Team, the unit also can be deployed as far east as Hampton Roads.

In addition to responding to emergencies, the unit promotes safety in navigable stretches of the James, where recreational boaters mingle with large, commercial vessels. The enforcement of boating laws is left to Henrico’s Police Division and other agencies. 

“What we’re out doing is just being a presence, so people know we’re out here,” Williams said.

The unit is bracing for a busy summer after a surge of purchases of boats, kayaks and canoes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams encourages owners to mark their names and contact information on the vessels in case they end up adrift. Similarly, the U.S. Coast Guard encourages owners of paddle craft to use an “If Found” decal for identification.

Henrico’s fire boat is a Munson landing craft, with a front end that can be lowered to receive equipment and to facilitate dive operations. It is equipped to pump 1,500 gallons of water per minute – the same as a fire engine – through twin discharges.

Vernieri, who holds an OUPV (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels) license from the Coast Guard, said he welcomes the extra responsibilities of being a firefighter and a member of a special unit. As a boat captain, he constantly leans on his training and practice because the flowing river, weather and visibility often present their own mix of challenges when, for example, a stranded boater needs help.

“The conditions have a big impact on what you have to do,” he said. “The wind is different. The rain is different. The water is coming at you different. That’s part of what makes it fun.”

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