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Sheriff applies for grant to buy a new boat

Orcas Island Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien. - Colleen Smith Armstrong/Staff Photo
Orcas Island Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien.
— image credit: Colleen Smith Armstrong/Staff Photo

Sheriff Rob Nou has a lofty goal.

He is applying for a Department of Homeland Security grant to purchase a $750,000 multi-mission, public safety boat to be utilized by county-wide agencies. Nou feels he has a compelling argument to win the nation-wide grant because of San Juan County’s close proximity to the border.

“The boat would address the collective public safety needs of San Juan County,” he said. “It would be a water ambulance and have a water pump … my vision is for this to be a shared asset.”

Nou wants to work collaboratively with the fire districts and share the burden of ongoing maintenance and usage costs. He presented his idea to the Orcas Fire board last week. While the commissioners gave conceptual support, they couldn’t give a concrete “yes” until numbers are on the table.

The sheriff’s office owns three boats: the 32-foot aluminum Guardian, a 29-foot Boston Whaler that is stationed at the Orcas Ferry Landing dock and a 19-foot vessel on Lopez. Nou says the Orcas boat underwent major repairs last summer and is “slowly sinking.”

The San Juan Island Fire District has a vessel but Nou said it’s generous to call it a fire boat.

“There is not a full functioning fire boat in this region,” Nou said.

The grant application deadline is early May and recipients will be announced in late fall. If the money is awarded to the sheriff’s office, then comes the task of crafting a business model that includes annual contributions from each district based on percentage of use. That differs from the current set up, where Orcas Fire pays the sheriff each time it uses the Guardian for a call.

If an agreement is reached, then Nou would get rid of the Orcas boat, move the Guardian to Orcas, and keep the new boat stationed in Friday Harbor.

Currently, the Guardian serves as San Juan County’s go-to boat for a variety of purposes: search and rescue, patrolling and law enforcement, moving firefighters, prisoner transport, assisting with vessel fires and enforcing buffer zones between orca whales and personal watercraft.

Most importantly to Orcas Fire and Rescue, the Guardian is the last resort when Airlift Northwest and the Coast Guard says it’s too stormy to fly patients to the mainland. On average, Orcas Fire used the Guardian 12 times annually in the last three years.

“We rely on the sheriff’s boat for transportation,” Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said. “We’re all in this together. We live in a marine environment and we need to look at our marine capabilities.”

Nou presented his idea to a fire chiefs’ group meeting last month, where he says they voiced support.

For the Orcas Fire Board, a lot of questions remain: how much would it cost to the districts per year? If Orcas Fire uses the Guardian, would the district have to pay for that too?

“What if the inter-local negotiations break down after the grant is awarded?” Commissioner Jim Coffin asked Nou.

Commissioner Clyde Duke and Coffin both said it was difficult to give support when the “real numbers” aren’t available.

“I embrace the concept, but this is a whole different approach,” Duke said. “This is a larger commitment than we’ve had.”

Coffin predicted the final negotiations could get contentious.

“I am willing to support this, however, I don’t want to be the bad guy if when we look at the numbers, I say ‘holy moly, this doesn’t work.’”

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