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Coast Guard investigates qualifications of L.A. fireboat operators

Criminal investigators with the Coast Guard are probing an elite group of Los Angeles firefighters at the city's port to see whether the highly paid operators of the “world’s most powerful fireboat” were actually qualified.

The specially trained and equipped fireboat units under scrutiny conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea and fight waterfront fires, such as a wharf blaze in the city’s Wilmington neighborhood in September that paralyzed commerce and sent toxic smoke into neighboring communities.

The teams include scuba divers trained for underwater firefighting, as well as crews that operate the LAFD harbor-based fleet, including a 105-foot, water cannon-equipped boat described as “the world’s most powerful fireboat.”

In June, a special agent of the Coast Guard Investigative Service requested 10 years of Los Angeles Fire Department logs, journals and other records that document the operation of the department's fleet of five fireboats, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Officials with the Coast Guard and the LAFD confirmed the investigation Tuesday, but declined to provide details because the inquiry is ongoing.

LAFD spokesman Peter Sanders said his agency is "cooperating fully" with the investigation and holding off on any internal review of the matter until federal agents have completed their work.

The inquiry comes as the LAFD has been trying to restore confidence in the way new department recruits are selected after a Times investigation that raised concerns about nepotism and unfairness.

Under city rules, pilots and mates assigned to the boats must first secure Coast Guard-issued licenses that involve specialized training, a written exam and verification of hundreds of hours of experience at sea.

Chris Volkle, a commercial ship captain who heads Marine Fire Training, a Seattle-area academy that provides training for on-the-water firefighters, said most private maritime companies and fire departments have record books where training hours are documented.

"If that person driving that fireboat is unqualified" and lacks experience, Volkle said, "he could kill people.”

LAFD fireboat jobs are highly paid assignments. Last year, the 15 pilots and mates at the port earned more than $210,000, on average, nearly half of that from overtime, according to a Times analysis of city payroll data.

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