Wash. Dept. Considers Purchase of New Fire Boat

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

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.