Orcas Fire will not be partners with the Sheriff’s office for a new emergency vessel.
After seeking community input at town hall meetings and fire commission sessions and discussing the proposal at 16 strategic planning meetings, the commissioners voted to not be part of the Marine Operations User’s Group.
“Fiscal accountability was pivotal in the decision that was made on April 9 at the board meeting,” said Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien. “We diligently compared the potential financial impacts to our taxpayers with the prospective benefits of the new program. Community input was also a significant driver, as well as the recent improved availability of federal marine resources.”
In November, the Sheriff’s Office was awarded a Federal Port Security Grant of up to $785,000 to acquire an emergency response boat for fire agencies and emergency medical services as well as law enforcement. The grant requires a local match that can be satisfied by staff time and other planned expenditures that should not increase costs to local taxpayers.
MOUG includes all the public safety organizations in San Juan County and is tasked with overseeing the marine operations program. As a financial participant, OIFR would have been responsible for approximately $25,000 per year in maintenance and operational costs for the program.
Sheriff Rob Nou was hopeful that the vessel would serve as a marine ambulance for medical response in weather conditions that make evacuation by air impossible. It would also be outfitted for marine rescue and dive response, equipped to fight marine, marina, and waterfront fires, and be an all-weather patrol boat for law enforcement and emergency response tasks necessary in San Juan County. The grant requires that the vessel is built by August 2014, so Nou says time is of the essence to hear back from the other departments.
“Obviously, I am disappointed in Orcas Fire’s decision,” Nou said. “I am not sure what impact it will have. With a smaller pool of contributions, we may have to scale the project back. But at this point, that is unknown. It’s very much still a work in progress. We’re not dead in the water yet ... This is an incredible opportunity for all of us – to have this asset available in-county. It’s not going to do anyone any good to have this vessel that no one can afford to use.”
The boat is intended to replace two existing public safety vessels. From the Sheriff’s Office, the 28-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat on Orcas is due to be retired. San Juan Island Fire District 3 also plans to decommission its fireboat “Confidence” when the new boat, with greater fire-fighting capabilities, comes into service. The existing fire boat may be sold to another agency in the Puget Sound, helping to fund the project. Currently, the Sheriff boat “Guardian” serves as a marine ambulance and emergency response vessel. When the new public safety boat comes into service, “Guardian” would be moved to Orcas Island, but remain available for emergencies throughout the county.
Emergency providers are currently charged $1,000 by the Sheriff’s Office for each marine EMS transport. With the purchase of a new vessel, the bill for transport is set to be $6,500 per transport for agencies that are not financial partners in MOUG.
Since 2007, OIFR has used the Sheriff’s vessel Guardian an average of seven times per year for EMS transports: four in 2012 and three in 2011. This year, it has made two marine EMS transports, one by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the other by the U.S. Coast Guard. There is currently no fee for marine transport with these federal organizations.
“OIFR will always assure that our EMS patients receive the highest level of care,” O’Brien said. “Orcas Island Fire and Rescue will continue to foster collaboration with the Sheriff’s Department and our neighboring emergency providers. In the remote island setting we live, we can’t operate alone. We will endeavor to seek partnerships and offer assistance to our surrounding neighbors.”