Wash. Dept. Considers Purchase of New Fire Boat

Dec. 02--The Vancouver Fire Department has a boat it uses on the Columbia River, but it would be inaccurate to call it a fire boat.

The small patrol boat, bought for $500 about five years ago after it was declared surplus by the Coast Guard, doesn't meet standards set by the National Fire Protection Association.

For starters, it can't be used to fight fires. The Coast Guard used it for harbor patrol.

"We have a bucket," said Tom Coval, a fire captain who coordinates the department's marine response unit. "And a fire extinguisher."

In 2009, after testing the waters with the old patrol boat for a few years, Vancouver Fire Department leaders felt it was time for a more useful vessel, one properly equipped to respond to fires, medical calls, chemical spills and technical rescues. The Coast Guard, after conducting a study of regional needs, supported the city's application for a Department of Homeland Security grant.

The fire department, joined by Clark County Fire and Rescue and the Port of Astoria, made a case that having three new vessels on the Columbia River would close safety and security gaps identified by the Coast Guard.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, as part of its Port Security Grant Program, awarded the Vancouver Fire Department a $2.6 million dollar grant that would pay for three Quick Response Vessels, equipment and training.

The largest vessel would be used by the Vancouver Fire Department, and the smaller two vessels would go to Clark County Fire and Rescue and the Port of Astoria.

Monday night, the Vancouver City Council will vote on whether to accept the grant.

Out of the total $2.6 million grant, $1.8 million would go to Vancouver. That would cover the cost of the vessel, training and administering the grant, as the city would manage the funds for the two other agencies.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina and Division Chief Stephen Eldred discussed the grant with the city council during a Nov. 26 workshop. They told councilors that a requirement for matching funds had been waived. Paying annual maintenance and operations costs for the Quick Response Vessel would cost more than twice what the city pays for the current boat.

The current boat costs about $60,000 annually for maintenance, insurance, equipment, fuel and specialty pay, as firefighters earn a different rate while on marine duty.

Maintenance and operations for the new vessel would cost about $143,000 annually. The $83,000 difference can be attributed to extra costs for insurance, fuel, equipment replacement and repairs, Eldred said.

The life of a Quick Response Vessel is 20 to 25 years, Eldred said.

To help with annual costs, 80 community partners have pledged $380,000 over the next decade, Eldred said, including one business at the Port of Vancouver that wishes to remain anonymous but pledged $10,000 a year for 10 years. Eldred told councilors the public-private partnership would be based on letters of intent signed by the business owners, but if owners decided not to help with the annual costs, the city would just have to pay a larger share.

Clark County Fire District 5 has committed a one-time payment of $200,000, Eldred said.

Councilor Jeanne Harris inquired whether Eldred had approached Port of Vancouver commissioners to see if the port would commit to helping with the annual costs, but Eldred said he was waiting to see what the city councilors thought about the grant. He said commissioners have been supportive, though.

Katie Odem, a communications specialist for the Port of Vancouver, said Friday that commissioners have not yet formally discussed giving the fire department money, but having the new vessels seems like a good idea.

"We think this will supplement the larger maritime emergency response system on and along the Columbia River," Odem said.

In addition to fire protection for the businesses, the fire department also responds to emergencies on ships that come through the Port of Vancouver.

About 38 ships a month dock at the port, Odem said.

Molina said by reaching out to other agencies and the community, he's trying to ensure the department will have enough money to keep a new vessel running.

"We want to plan for the worst and hope for the best," Molina said, adding he doesn't want to divert money from the city's general fund.

'Little raft'

During the Nov. 26 workshop, councilors seemed inclined to accept the grant. Councilor Jeanne Stewart called it critical, and said the fire department's calls are "way beyond" what the "little raft" can handle.

But she, and other councilors, had questions about the annual costs. Councilor Bill Turlay said he wanted a side-by-side comparison of the two boats.

The current boat is 17 feet long, six feet wide and has a top speed of 20 miles an hour (or 15 mph, depending on how many people are aboard.) It can carry three crew members and one patient. Coval said one crew member drives, one talks on the radio and the other is a swimmer; one of the firefighters aboard is a firefighter-paramedic. The boat shouldn't be used at night, but the department has taken it out, Coval said, depending on the severity of the call and if anyone else can respond.

If they do take the boat out at night, one of the crew members has to hold up a spotlight, said firefighter Casey Holmes.

The current boat cannot be used in foul weather.

The Quick Response Vessel, in comparison, is 40 to 45 feet long, 15 to 16 feet wide and has a top speed of 46 miles per hour. It has 500-gallon fuel capacity (the current boat holds 11.5 gallons of fuel) and meets or exceeds the National Fire Protection Association's pumping, plumbing and equipment requirements. It wouldn't have the same use restrictions as the current boat.

Eldred said the department bought the current boat to test whether a boat was needed.

The department gets approximately 100 calls to the river a year. Prior to buying the patrol boat, firefighters would rely on assistance from other boaters. Other times, Coval said, they'd show up and just be stuck on the beach.

While the Coast Guard has jurisdiction to patrol the river, when there are calls for help -- be it about a swimmer in distress, or a medical emergency on a boat, or someone threatening to jump from the Interstate 5 or I-205 bridge -- firefighters, all of whom are trained emergency medical technicians, are the first to respond. Some firefighters are also paramedics, and some firefighters are trained swimmers who can rescue swimmers in distress.

Coval likened it to a car crash on a freeway. The Washington State Patrol may be responsible for keeping freeways safe, but firefighters are the first responders.

The Portland Fire Department has the David Campbell fireboat on the Columbia River, but it has to go through a no-wake zone by houseboats and it's slow to respond to incidents on the Washington side of the river.

Vessels such as the Campbell do typically have names. When asked if the fire department's current boat has a name, Coval said no.

"Not one that I can tell you," he said.

If the city council accepts the grant, the city will put out a call for bids to build the vessel. Once a bid was awarded, it would take about a year before the vessel was in the water.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.

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