New York’s Bravest at Sea


You’ve seen them on the water at events like the September 11 memorial, the Rockaway Warriors Weekend and even at this year’s beach opening. It’s hard to miss when one of the FDNY’s fireboats puts on a water display, wowing and wooing crowds, directing eyes to the water as cannons shoot the seawater from below, high into the sky. But the fireboats aren’t just there to bring an extra spark of excitement to a waterside ceremony. They play a very important role in keeping our city safe on the water, and in Rockaway, it’s Marine 3 and her crew that is one of the first on the scene in a water emergency.

On Friday, August 16, The Rockaway Times joined Lieutenant Eric Berntsen, and firefighters Mark Rizzuto and Jerry Warnock, aboard Marine 3, the Sheepshead Bay-based boat that patrols the ocean and bay in an area that stems from south of the Verrazano Bridge to Long Beach, or beyond if duty calls. And during the summer, the calls are consistent. That’s why Marine 3 is among three boats that make up the FDNY Marine unit’s summer detail, to address the increase in water emergencies during the summer, in addition to the FDNY’s three other year-round boats in its fleet.

From April 1 through November 1, Marine 3, a 33-foot aluminum boat patrols the local waterways, looking to assist boaters in distress, or answering emergency calls that could include anything from capsized boats, inoperative boats in dangerous situations, searches and recoveries in drowning incidents, and of course, fires on boats or waterfront properties.

The water cannon feature that dazzles spectators at ceremonies, is also utilized in fire emergencies. From an opening on the bottom of the boat, water is sucked up from below, into the cannon and powerfully pumped out with help of a car motor. As they demonstrated how it works, shooting at an old NYC DEP Outfall, now known as The Round House to local fishermen, Lt. Berntsen handled the buttons that control the speed and direction of the water, while firefighter Rizzuto kept the boat stable, as the water pressure is so powerful, it can cause the boat to move about. That water pressure comes in hand during fire emergencies. When a fire tore through several boats in Marina 59 in 2016, Marine 3 was there to help put out the flames and tend to houseboat residents. When a fire erupted in the parking garage of the Kinga Plaza Mall in September 2018, Marine 3 was first on the scene, working to put out the flames from Mill Basin.

However, it isn’t just fire emergencies that Marine 3 responds to. Each time there’s a search for a person in a drowning incident, Marine 3 is there. Equipped with computer systems that can show water depth or can pick up things below, including fish, the boat can be a useful tool to help the crew during the unfortunate incident of searching for a body. An ocean search can be dangerous for all involved, but with several weeks of training before the summer detail begins, and continuous on-the-job training, the crew of Marine 3, made up of seven firefighters and three lieutenants, can handle it. “We were out there looking for the boy that died near Beach 59th a few weeks ago. We were in pretty big waves, searching near the jetty, and if we didn’t have a very experienced operator, we probably couldn’t have been searching as close as we did,” LT. Berntsen recalled. “It was dangerous. Our driver was on the wheel for two hours, nonstop, taking on the waves as we searched.”

Lt. Bernsten and firefighter Warnock, who are both on the summer detail with the FDNY marine unit for the first time this year, have gained invaluable experience from regulars on the detail, such as firefighter Rizzuto, who is on his sixth summer with the marine unit. “This has been amazing,” Lt. Berntsen said. “The knowledge you gain by doing this every day, working with such talented people doesn’t compare.” Berntsen and Warnock both came in with little more than personal boating experience, are now winding down the summer with much more confidence on the water. “I love it,” Warnock said. “It’s a totally different experience, learning how to operate on the water and it has definitely made me a better boater. I do miss going into fires on land, but we get to experience different types of rescues and emergencies. I’m so glad I was accepted to the program.”

Some days are easier than others. When Marine 3 isn’t responding to a call, the crew spends the day simply patrolling the water while closely listening to the transmissions from the FDNY and Coast Guard radios. Sometimes the only thing they see are a whale or a pod of dolphin. And other times, there’s a little more action, like last week, when they came across three sailboats stuck on a sandbar. Though the crew couldn’t do anything to help the boaters until high tide arrived, they spent time talking to the passengers to make sure they were okay. Incidents like this tend to stem from inexperienced boaters, which the crew says there are plenty of during the summer. “Most of, or at least half of the incidents we encounter are due to inexperience. People put themselves in dangerous positions when they don’t know what they’re doing,” Lt. Berntsen said. “A few weeks ago, we pulled three people off the jetty. They were trying to push their boat while the motor was running, which could have resulted in the boat capsizing or someone getting cut by a propeller. The girl didn’t know how to drive. She almost flipped the boat. Instead of just assisting, it turned into a rescue mission.”

Those of the marine unit may spend all summer keeping our boaters and swimmers safe, but their abilities extend beyond emergencies in local waters. As part of their extensive training, those of the FDNY Marine Unit are prepared to deploy wherever needed, in the event of a hurricane or flooding in other parts of the United States. So while their summer detail may end on November 1 and the crew returns to their regular firehouses, they’re always at the ready to help those experiencing water emergencies.

Those from Marine 3 have surely proven that the FDNY is not just the bravest on land, but also at sea.