Town hall meeting address potential of new safety boat

Sheriff Rob Nou at a recent town hall meeting on Orcas. - Cali Bagby/ Staff photo
Sheriff Rob Nou at a recent town hall meeting on Orcas.
— image credit: Cali Bagby/ Staff photo

(Editor's note: The initial version of this story incorrectly referred to The Guardian as the boat that Sheriff Nou described as sinking. The boat that he was referring to is a nameless 28-foot Bayliner patrol boat based on Orcas.)

As islanders we are surrounded by water. We are also surrounded by the fruits of modern technology – ambulances, ferries, helicopters and boats, just to name a few.

For island residents, these are not only methods of transportation, but means to saving lives, which is why the San Juan Sheriff’s Department is in the process of purchasing a public safety vessel and working with EMS and fire departments throughout the county to craft an agreement on the joint operation of the boat.

“To frame it for you,” said Sheriff Rob Nou at a recent town hall meeting on Orcas. “The boat we own now [the Orcas-based patrol boat] is 25 years old, it’s life as an emergency response vessel is coming to an end of its functional life. In short story – it is sinking.”

A town hall meeting was held on Jan. 9 in the Eastsound Fire Hall to help Orcas Island Fire and Rescue evaluate and address their participation with the new vessel and hear public comment.

“We can’t survive here alone. We need to help each other from time to time,” said Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien at the meeting.

Nou said that when it comes to the new boat, his view is to address the safety needs of the entire county. When the new boat is purchased it will dock at Friday Harbor and the Guardian will be based in Orcas, as a secondary vessel.

Since 2010, OIFR has used The Guardian 14 times to transport patients to hospitals off island when the weather prohibits aeromedical transport – an average of 4.6 transports per year.

Assistant Fire Chief Mik Preysz said when looking at these numbers people should be aware that in several cases the boat was needed for transport, but was unavailable because it required maintenance or was out of service – in September, the Guardian ran aground on a submerged reef near Sinclair Island in Whatcom County, while transporting patients.

In 2012, O’Brien said two lives were saved by marine rescue – a missing person at Eagle Lake and a man with a life-threatening injury on Vendovi Island. The Guardian has also been used for transporting OIFR emergency personnel to other islands and surrounding waters for emergency assistance.

The new boat is on its way to becoming a reality since the Sheriff’s Office secured a Federal Port Security Grant of up to $785,000. Nou compared the boat to fire stations, even if they are not used frequently, you are glad it’s there when you need it.

“We don’t want to be in competition with helicopter transfer,” he added. “The safety boat is an option of last resort.”

OIFR has two potential ways to be involved, either as a financial partner responsible for an estimated $24,430 per year or as a “pay-per-use” member, which would be about $6,500 per transport.

The San Juan County Marine Operations User’s Group, created by the sheriff and surrounding emergency service providers, will look at how to finance, manage and operate the sheriff’s boat program and administer the grant.

About 20 community members attended the meeting and vocalized varied responses to OIFR’s involvement in the new boat.

New County Councilmember Rick Hughes mentioned that Spring Point, Deer Harbor and Olga are three areas that would benefit from having access to a safety vessel if there is a disaster and rapid evacuation is needed.

Two community members voiced their support in OIFR becoming a partner rather than a “pay-per-use” member.

Another attendee wondered if the boat should run like Airlift Northwest, where people have to buy into a membership program.

One man said he was concerned that if the boat is used for medical, fire and police work it will not be efficient.

He said that if they decide the boat is for medical transfers it needs to be fast, a fire boat loaded with equipment would be too slow.

When asked to what extent the fire district should fund or pay for the boat, a community member said, “We shouldn’t fund it at all.”

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