LONG BEACH — The Harbor Commission has agreed to spend $883,000 to save its two nearly new high-technology fireboats from fast becoming floating rust buckets, and also to brush up the skills of crewmen.
The commission is paying $653,000, the largest chunk of the funds, to a Terminal Island boatyard to correct design and construction deficiencies and to fix corrosion damage on the twin $2.2-million Challenger and Liberty, which were delivered to the city within the past two years.
Retraining of Crews
A San Pedro firm has also been authorized to receive up to $100,000 for marine engineering and consulting, and $130,000 to retrain fireboat crews.
Port officials hope the flurry of spending will end the spate of problems that have dogged the boats.
"The fireboats unfortunately . . . were not delivered to us with the quality of materials that would best serve our community, and the equipment was less than the standard we needed to give us the ultimate in safety and protection," Harbor Commission Chairman George F. Talin Sr. said.
The naval architectural firm that designed the boats has since gone out of the business. But officials with the Mississippi company that performed the construction work say the boats meet the specifications they were given.
While touted on port brochures as among the fastest-pumping, most automated and efficient fireboats in the nation, the vessels were found to have rust problems virtually from the day they were delivered to the port.
In a marine survey conducted earlier this year, engineer George E. Moller of Palos Verdes Estates confirmed that "commonly accepted principles of good corrosion and marine engineering have been overlooked" and "neither care, quality-control nor attention to specification were observed" in the boats' construction.
As more problems developed, morale sank among the Long Beach firefighters who man the boats, in part because the Los Angeles Fire Department patrols the neighboring Port of Los Angeles with a fleet of boats that are much older, but still well-built and spotless.
Each of the Long Beach boats has spent months in the repair yards because of problems.
In addition, both have undergone expensive repairs because of accidents in which propellers were bent after striking submerged objects.
The Challenger has been laid up since May at the Al Larson Boat Shop on Terminal Island while workers correct the underwater damage and perform extensive modifications to overcome rust and corrosion. The job is expected to be complete in about three weeks.
Liberty to Follow Challenger
"Once the boat was dry-docked, it was determined to be cost-effective to correct some of the corrosion and construction design problems," William D. Bower, acting director of the port maintenance, stated in a memo last week to the Harbor Commission.
The Liberty is slated to enter the Al Larson yard next for the extensive repairs. The boat was in the same yard's dry-dock for a bent propeller earlier this year. Then, upon being released from dry-dock, a fire in the engine room burned out bearings in each of the propeller shafts.
The Harbor Department blamed the incident on an engineer's failure to make sure the bearings were properly cooled and lubricated. Crewmen say, however, that the fire was due to the boat's poor design.
Although crew members are highly experienced in operating the boats, the commission awarded a training contract to the Rados International Corp. that will cover such basics as navigation, laws and fireboat operations. The sessions will be videotaped by the Long Beach Fire Department for viewing by future crew members.
"It just takes a lot of specialized training to run these things properly," said Harbor Commissioner Robert Langslet.
Joseph F. Prevratil, executive director of the port, said attorneys are still studying whether to take legal action against the boats' builder to try to recover the cost of repairs.
The builder, Moss Point Marine Inc., of Escataupa, Miss., contends that the vessel warrantees have lapsed.
Prevratil said, however, that the port is doing the best it can by spending for repairs and crew retraining.
"If there's never a fire in the port, you can always question the wisdom of (spending) the dollars," Prevratil said. "If there's a fire, it will be money well spent."