SJ fire department in, EMS out in new public safety boat deal

The San Juan County Sheriff's Department remains on course to acquire a new and improved emergency response boat, built by federal dollars, despite the fact that several public safety agencies that previously were expected to chip in for its maintenance and operations have abandoned ship.

San Juan Island Fire Department, however, along with Shaw Island fire district, remains onboard. In a 2-0 decision, fire district commissioners Albert Olson and John Jensen last week gave the department a green light to negotiate a maintenance agreement with the Sheriff's office. Because of a conflict created by dual roles as both a county councilman and fire district commissioner, Bob Jarman, heeding advice of the county prosecutor, recused himself from the May 16 vote.

Fire Chief Steve Marler said maintenance of the boat will likely cost the department no more than $47,000 a year, "at worst case," adding that a pressing need to replace the fire boat Confidence, now 12 years old, and the greater fire-fighting capacity planned for the new boat, weighed heavily into the decision to team up with the Sheriff's office.

"It costs us about $30,000 a year to run the Confidence and we'd spend probably another $40,000 a year at this point to replace it," Marler said. "That adds up to about $70,000 a year assuming we're putting away money for a replacement."

In November, the Sheriff's department was awarded a Federal Port Security Grant of up to $785,000 to pay for construction of an emergency response vessel that could be shared by local fire departments, law enforcement and emergency medical services.

That grant required a local match that could be met through maintenance and staff hours by agencies sharing the use of it. Sheriff Rob Nou had been hopeful that the boat, which would be built entirely by federal dollars, would serve as a replacement for the department's aging 28-foot Boston Whaler, stationed on Orcas, as well as offering increased fire-fighting ability and on-the-water ambulance service for public safety agencies across the county.

In late April, elected officials of Orcas Island Fire Department balked at a $25,000 annual payment, and Lopez Island fire commissioners followed suit shortly thereafter. More recently, the San Juan Island Hospital Commission withdrew San Juan EMS from the prospective partnership, known as the Marine Operations User's Group.

An early supporter of the partnership, San Juan EMS Chief Jim Cole said that the agency and the commission are not dead set against joining the partnership, and that the commission would consider a alternative proposal.

"We're waiting for the sheriff to get back to us if want us to participate at a different level," he said. "But the level they wanted us to participate at wasn't going to work for our commissioners."

Cole said the agency relies regularly on Vessel Assist for on-the-water emergency transport and that the Sheriff's boat Guardian, "which we paid quite a bit of money to help outfit in the first place", is also an option, if need be.

"People shouldn't worry about us being able to respond as we will continue to do so regardless of the ability of us to participate in the boat project," he said.

The federal grant stipulates that the boat must be built and in service by the end of August, 2014. Nou said the boat is expected to take about a year to build, depending on specifications. Equipment and configurations for ambulance service are likely be eliminated from the design without a commitment from EMS, he said, which may reduce construction costs by about one-third.

Still, Nou said time is growing short to both submit a design and to have a new boat tied up at the dock by a year from now in August.

"We haven't made any final decision on the vessel, but they'll need to be made soon," he said. "We're absolutely committed to a course of action but it may not have all the features that we had originally thought it would. The political nature of this has been much more daunting that I ever thought it would be."



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