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San Diego Harbor Police Officers Double As Maritime Firefighters

Port of San Diego Harbor Police trainees practice putting out fires in what a ship environment might look like, Oct. 2, 2018.
Matt Hoffman/KPBS
Port of San Diego Harbor Police trainees practice putting out fires in what a ship environment might look like, Oct. 2, 2018.

After completing the police academy, Port of San Diego Harbor Police recruits are thrown into the fire — literally.

"Believe me, when I see those firefighters drive by now, it’s a whole new respect for those guys," said Mitchell Collier who was a police officer in Hawaii before transferring to San Diego.

All Harbor Police officers are required to complete three weeks of fire training.

"Ninety-five percent or more of what we do on the water is law enforcement based," said Port of San Diego Harbor Police Officer Matt Oakley. "However, our primary mission on the water is marine firefighting."

Trainees practice putting out fires on a converted World War II landing craft which simulates different scenarios, like an engine fire.

"You tell yourself it’s really hot you’re going to be able to handle it," Collier said. "Then, when you get in there, you feel the real heat and it’s a big difference."

Port of San Diego Harbor Police trainees get ready to complete fire exercises in National City, Oct. 2, 2018.
Matt Hoffman/KPBS
Port of San Diego Harbor Police trainees get ready to complete fire exercises in National City, Oct. 2, 2018.

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The Harbor Police reportedly get one or two calls a month for fires, but unlike a house, they cannot dump tons of water on a boat.

"We have to balance mitigating the problem making sure it doesn’t grow to a bigger problem, (in other words) other vessels, but also keeping it afloat," Oakley said. "If you put too much water onto a vessel you can end up flooding the vessel, causing it to capsize and sink."

HPD does not have fire trucks — they have fireboats. The boats' water canons shoot out over 1,000 gallons of water per minute.

"We have an endless supply of water," Oakley said. "All the water pumps from directly under the boat."

Still, Harbor Police said most boat fires happen below deck.

"A little electrical fire or a radiator hose blowing off," Oakley said. "Getting a crack or leak in it and a hot motor creating a bunch of steam where people think it’s a fire."

Soon nine trainees will be sworn harbor police officers — ready to change into fire gear in three minutes or less.

"We’re taking off the vest, we’re taking off the duty belt and we’re having to respond to some pretty dangerous situations given the types of fire," Oakley said.

The port's Harbor Police officers are responsible for 34 miles of waterfront covering the cities of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego.

San Diego Harbor Police Officers Double As Maritime Firefighters
San Diego Harbor Police Officers Double As Maritime Firefighters
The newest group of trainees are finishing the Port of San Diego Harbor Police's marine fire academy this week.