The Hong Kong Fire Services Department (HKFSD) is one of the largest and well trained fire services in the world it is also one of the most diverse protecting its 7.2 million people in all types of emergencies by providing Ambulance, Rescue, Flood, Storm, Fire and Marine services.
Hong Kong’s 2,754 km2 territories consists of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and over 260 offshore islands. Of the total area, 1,104 km2 are land and 1,650 km2 are sea. As stated in the Fire Services Ordinance, the duties of Hong Kong Fire Services Department (HKFSD) shall be “to (a) extinguish fires; (b) protect life and property in case of fire or other calamity…” and its powers on occasion of fire cover “any premises, vessel or thing…” Therefore, uncommon to most land based fire brigades in the world, HKFSD has the statutory obligations and a long history of providing emergency service in the marine environment. The commissioning of first “Floating Fire Engine” of Hong Kong Fire Brigade (former name of HKFSD) dated back to 1882. Nowadays, HKFSD has an establishment of over ten thousand well-trained personnel, include 9515 disciplined members and 727 civilian staff. Fire-fighting, rescue and other emergency services are undertaken by three operational Fire Commands and an Ambulance Command. In 2015, they responded to 34,320 fire calls, 33,683 special service calls and 710,041 emergency ambulance calls. This article is to concentrate on HKFSD maritime emergency service for the protection of shipping, the waters around Hong Kong’s island, along one of the largest container terminals in the world and around Hong Kong International Airport, a major international and regional hub that deals with 68 million passengers and an average of 1,112 flights a day last year.
Hong Kong has a long history as seafaring center going back many centuries but we will look at the 1950s to now. The establishment of Marine Division in HKFSD was formalized in early 1960s although fireboats had been part of the emergency response well before. A milestone in the development of fireboat fleet was 1953 when Fireboat Alexander Grantham (AG) went into service. She served as the flagship of HKFSD fireboat fleet, responding to fire alarms and conducting rescue operations both inside the territories and outside Hong Kong waters, if warranted. Fireboat AG built by Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd. was the largest fireboat in Asia before being decommissioned in 2002. She was an enduring witness to the history of Hong Kong’s sea rescue services and her role was taken over by Fireboat Elite upon replacement.
Marine Firefighting and Rescue Today
Currently, the Marine Division is equipped with eight fireboats, a diving support vessel and two diving support speedboats. These vessels are operated by the complement of fireboat crews formed by 200 professional firefighters. After transferring from land side fire stations, new fireboat crews receive on-the-job training for more extensive marine firefighting knowledge and skills. With the accumulation of sea time, achievement of local marine certifications and passing internal assessments, they will progress step-by-step along either the deck or engineering stream in Marine Division and become the specialists on board fireboats, responsible for the safe navigation and operation of the vessels. At the same time, the crews maintain firefighting and rescue as their core duties. Fireboat crews can take up emergency tasks independently or jointly with other land crews. On the major fireboats with diving facilities, there are also qualified rescue divers posted on board who perform multi-task duties on surface as well as underwater. Furthermore, there are two Command Boats and eight speedboats under the Airport Fire Contingent, dedicated for the safety of aviation transport moving around the international airport.
Underwater Search and Rescue
The Diving Unit under Marine Division has 120 active divers responsible for aquatic search and rescue down to the maximum depth of 42m. The Unit also operates a 3-compartment compression chamber for treating patients requiring hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The FSD Diving Base on Stonecutters Island is an operational cum training facility equipped with a range of professional systems like a deep dive simulator able to simulate 100m water depth for wet dive training and an 8m deep pool where high waves and strong helicopter downwash can be generated to replicate common rescue situation in open water. A modular shipwreck is also placed in the pool to test the divers’ sense of orientation and their maneuverability in confined space. Besides serving the objective of diver training, about 4000 members of the fire and ambulance stream have already completed swift water awareness training in the swift water pool of the Diving Base. In 2015, a Special Rescue Team has been formed in Diving Unit to meet the challenges of rescue work at the subsea tunnel construction project near Hong Kong International Airport. A part of the tunnel will be pressurized above 5 bars during construction and this team adopts mixed gas diving mode to cope with the potential rescue scenario inside the tunnel.
Aviation Emergency at Sea
As the airport is surrounded by sea, Airport Fire Contingent of HKFSD provides rescue and firefighting for aircraft accidents within 5km of the water surrounding the airport. Two high-speed catamaran Command Boats (CB) and 8 high-powered speed boats are deployed at the Sea Rescue Berths located strategically at the eastern and western ends of the airport. Each 35.6m long CB has a rescue capacity for 600 persons, well prepared for any untoward incident of the largest passenger aircraft in this Category 10 airport. Besides equipped with fire-fighting system, infra-red night vision system, side-scan sonar and remotely operated vehicle, the CB is built with a helicopter winching platform and two rescue zones along the beams with low freeboard to facilitate convenient casualties handling and transfer. These two CB are manned 24-hr and they form the core of emergency operation at sea. In case of an aircraft ditching, both CB will be turned out immediately from the Sea Rescue Berths, and the speed boats will be operated by personnel from the two airside fire stations who will steer the speed boats to scene for rescue and firefighting operations.
There had been a number of catastrophic maritime incidents that posed great challenges to HKFSD. The following major incidents are spotlighted in the timeline.
In the Sunday morning on 9 Jan 1972, RMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship in the world when it launched in 1938, was anchored in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. She was there to be converted to a floating school called “Seawise University”. A series of fires suddenly broke out aboard, forcing hundreds of visiting shipyard workers to evacuate the ship. John A. Hudson, an Englishman who witnessed the fire described “… What had started as puffs of smoke from portholes turned into a raging inferno in the upper superstructure generating huge volumes of smoke. This, over only a three hour period.” Fireboats tried to extinguish the fire for the next 24 hours. The ship still burning, finally keeled over and sunk.
In the National Day holiday on 1 Oct 2012, two passenger vessels namely “Lamma IV” and “Sea Smooth” collided off the northwest coast of Lamma Island. “Lamma IV” carried 124 passengers and 3 crewmen on board. Most of them were staff of a power company and their families. They were taking an excursion trip from Lamma Island to Victoria Harbour for viewing the firework display celebrating the National Day. Before the firework display was about to start, the two vessels both making way crashed. The commuter ferry “Sea Smooth” was damaged but managed to return to port safely. “Lamma IV” sank quickly at a dramatic angle to the horizontal and threw all passengers into the water. They had difficulty not only in retrieving lifejackets but also in donning them properly. The attachment of the seats on the upper deck failed, caused both seats and passengers to be thrown down so that they slid towards the stern of the cabin where some passengers were hurt and trapped, some were then drowned. In the subsequent 86 hours, Hong Kong Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre coordinated all available search and rescue units at scene (including Fire Services vessels and Marine Police launches). Six fire boat and four speedboats together with more than 350 fire and ambulance crews engaged in this incident for search and rescue on sea surface and underwater. Survivors who had been struggling inside the cabin of sunken vessel and around the crash location were rescued. Divers had to retrieve the bodies of deceased persons whom were found entangled in and trapped by seating in the cabins of “Lamma IV”. A total of 39 persons on “Lamma IV” lost their lives and 88 injured. This was the city’s deadliest maritime accident in 40 years.
On 27 Sept 2015, many vessels returned to Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter and closely moored during the traditional Mid-Autumn Festival. About 2pm, a fire broke out on a fishing boat in the typhoon shelter. Upon receiving the fire call, fire appliances from nearby stations were turned out and arrived in 6 minutes. The fire crews approached the burning vessels on Marine Police Launches with their firefighting equipment. Owing to strong wind and multiple explosions of LPG cylinders on the affected vessels, fire spread rapidly to other fishing boats and pleasure crafts which predominately built with glass fibers or wood. Some burning wrecks also drifted freely, endangering nearby vessels. Fireboat Elite and Diving Support Vessel were the first batch of fireboats arrived at scene and battled with the blaze. Ultimately, the huge fire was extinguished using 8 water monitors and 9 jets. A total of 29 vessels were damaged and 5 persons sustained slight injuries.
Training and Development
Fireboat officers are sent abroad periodically to keep abreast of modern fire-fighting technology and broaden their fleet management knowledge through interactions with overseas counterparts. Starting 2015, an attachment programme has been launched with Nanhai Rescue Bureau (NRB). Participants live on board NRB rescue vessels in the 4 weeks to observe and take part in the daily operation for learning practical skills about vessel control, rescue and salvage in the open marine environment.
Modernization of the fireboat fleet is on-going to cope with the development of the seafront facilities and to ensure the provision of high quality maritime emergency service. The aged Fireboat 7 is going to be replaced and the new vessel will have higher cruising speed of 40 knots and enhanced features on chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear protection. In order to improve quick response capability, Rescue Jet Bike (special design rescue water bike) will be introduced to the fireboat fleet this year for coastal snatch rescue and assisting mass rescue operation.
To meet the demands for growing size and complexity of emergency services in Hong Kong, the new Fire and Ambulance Services Academy (FASA) has been officially opened on 29 Apr 2016. With the large scale 5-deck ship fire simulator and 90m long swift water channel around the ship model in FASA, different levels of marine firefighting and rescue training in realistic settings can be imparted to the marine fire crews specifically and to all emergency responders at large.
It should now be very clear to the readers that the Marine Division is a well-equipped, extremely professional part of the HKFSD protecting the shipping traffic, ferries, leisure craft, the airport, islands, wharfs and those that work in this busy marine environment.
For more information, go to www.hkfsd.gov.hk