NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - State officials are soliciting support
in Washington, D.C., for a $6 million, first-of-its-kind homeland
security boat that would guard New England's home heating oil
reserves and cruise Connecticut's 210 miles of coastline.
New Haven officials have said they need a fire boat to protect
the harbor, where the federal government stockpiles 850,000 barrels
of heating oil.
But the boat being pitched in Washington is more than a simple
fire boat.
The blueprints call for a fully equipped triage area and a dozen
hospital beds. Sophisticated sprinkler systems would allow the
vessel to sail into areas exposed to chemical agents, and
decontamination showers would help treat victims.
An elite search-and-rescue team would be outfitted on board, and
as many as 40 troops could assemble there. The hospital unit
doubles as a briefing room, with the surgical table becoming a
conference table.
Even at 100 tons, the catamaran design offers the stability to
maneuver through gale-force winds and the speed to respond to a
marine crisis anywhere on the coast in about 90 minutes.
It also fights fires. Four high-power cannons pump an endless
supply of sea water at a rate of 10,000 gallons a minute. It has
around-the-clock firefighting capabilities that include water and
foam spray.
State homeland security officials initially hoped to float a
bond issued to fund the boat. Now the preliminary schematics -
quietly drafted at no cost by Bridgeport's Derecktor Shipyards -
sit in state police Sgt. Michael Nockunas' office, waiting for
federal funding.
"Is it a lot of money? Yes. Is it going to cost a lot of money
to operate? Yes," said Nockunas, a master captain who serves in
the state's Homeland Security Department and proposed the boat's
design.
"Is it worth it? Yes."
Connecticut's congressional delegation agrees. When the bond
proposal was abandoned the House delegation included the boat as
part of next year's budget for the federal Homeland Security
Department - legislation that is still pending.
New Haven Fire Chief Michael Grant told Sen. Christopher Dodd in
March that his department would be hard pressed to fight a major
oil tank fire or a blaze aboard a tanker ship.
Francisco Ortiz, the city's new police chief, said
anti-terrorism efforts on land are insufficient to protect a
strategic industrial complex with that much waterfront access.
"It's an area that gives me a lot of concern when I go to bed
at night because I don't think we have the best plan there," Ortiz
said.
The Coast Guard has given the state preliminary approval to dock
the boat at its New Haven slip, Nockunas said, and lawmakers see
New Haven as a convenient midpoint that would allow the ship to
respond to problems in the other major Connecticut harbors.
With a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base in New London and
400,000 passengers moving through Bridgeport's ferry terminal each
year, state safety officials say the lack of a sophisticated fire
boat is absurd.
Set a major fire aboard the Long Island ferry, Nockunas said,
and its hull full of fuel and deck lined with cars make it a
"floating bomb."
While support for the boat in Connecticut is widespread and
homeland security is a federal funding priority, Washington
lawmakers caution that the proposal is far from a sure thing.
"Every city, every town, everybody is looking for something,"
said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who sits on the House Appropriations
Committee.
The bill passed an early hurdle last week in the Appropriations
Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Connecticut's $9 million
proposals are but a tiny fraction of the $29.4 billion spending
bill, but the full committee has yet to debate the specific funding
programs.
"Quite frankly the federal government hasn't lived up to its
obligations to our first responders," said DeLauro, who said she
will push for the bill when it hits her committee floor.
Gov. John G. Rowland said the state is actively lobbying for the
boat, which he said is a federal responsibility.
"Everybody seems to be on board," New Haven Mayor John
DeStefano said. "The issue is, how do we get it on the
appropriations bill?"
If the boat is built, the real squabbles could come from within
Connecticut. Officials estimate the boat would cost about $1
million a year to operate, none of which is written into the
federal proposal.
Perhaps more importantly, many local police and fire departments
feel shortchanged by the massive homeland security spending, the
vast majority of which has gone to federal and state agencies. Only
about 15 percent of the preliminary Homeland Security Department
budget is earmarked for cities and towns.
A $6 million boat manned by state officials and protecting city
waters could become a contentious issue.
Connecticut Homeland Security Director Vincent J. DeRosa said
the state is preparing to dole out $9 million in equipment and
training, and that money will be targeted to smaller cities and
towns.
Dodd said he and Sen. Joe Lieberman have asked Senate
appropriators to include $10 million in the budget for three fire
boats - one each for New Haven, New London and Bridgeport.
"I'd like all three, but if I can get one it will be a step in
the right direction," Dodd said.
Budget negotiations will determine what - if any - money
Connecticut will receive.
"They claim homeland security is a top priority," Dodd said.
"And on the basis of that I think we have a good chance."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)