Fire department seeks new boat for off-island rescues

A dispute between the San Juan Fire Department and Sam Juan Police Department regarding the public safety vessel, the Sentinel, may be clearing the smoke on a larger underlying issue — there is only one public safety vessel in the county.

The Sentinel was purchased in 2014 with a Homeland Security Grant, not costing taxpayers a dime. Before the Sentinel, the fire department had their own boat. After receiving the grant for the Sentinel, the previous fire department boat was retired from its duty as it was old and not in good shape. It was agreed upon that this boat was to be shared by law enforcement and fire districts three and five.

Since then, the boat has undergone costly repairs, along with being towed away from being grounded.

Sheriff Ron Krebs said that these issues have been happening for quite some time.

“We have to acknowledge when something bad happens,” Krebs said of the damage on the boat. “I completely understand that things are going to happen, they are, it’s just the way it is. It’s a service boat, you know, things happen.”

Krebs stated that he doesn’t think the Sentinel meets the standards that the fire department wants and can’t keep up with the expansion of the program, which is an aspect Krebs and Fire Chief Norvin Collins both agree upon.

“Chief Collins came in and expanded the program — which is fine, which is good, we are all for a broader program, a better way of working, more protection, a better way to serve our communities,” said Krebs. “But they want a boat that’s able to sit there and be ready to go at all times, but right now, we don’t have that option. We are on the water quite a bit, you know they may need the boat and it’s not there.”

Collins said that once the fire department used the Sentinel as a shared resource, they sold their confidence in being able to protect the community.

“When we explain the situation, everyone is like, ‘What do you mean there’s only one fire rescue vessel in the entire county?’” He said with a laugh and a shrug. “How can that work when we are all surrounded by water?”

In certain weather conditions, the Sentinel is a critical asset. If there is too much smoke in the air, fog, or conditions are too icy, Collins said aeromedical services aren’t always available.

Charles Dalldorf, a communication consultant that works with the fire department said, “Last year, during the smoke days, there were ten days where there was almost zero visibility flying conditions. During that time, we did five or six transports on the Sentinel of critically ill patients, including two women who were in labor.”

This instance caused Collins to further believe that one public safety vessel is not enough for the county.

To solve this problem, Collins has been working with County Manager Mike Thomas.

What they’ve come up with is working with Safeboat International, a local company out of Bremerton, Washington, allowing them to lease out a new public safety vessel for as long as they need.

“When I laid out to the people at Safeboat what was going on, they said, ‘Oh we need to get this to you because it is the right thing to do,’” said Collins, in regard to the safety of the community.

Safeboat International has worked out a deal with the San Juan Island fire department so that 100% of what is spent on the lease will be applied to a new boat. Collins is taking his time with the lease in order to find a grant for a new vessel that will not cost taxpayers anything, just like the Sentinel.

He said he hopes for this new vessel to help move the community forward and ensure safety.

“The Sentinel met a need, but I think that from 2014 to now, dynamics have changed. Size of community has changed, the mission focus has changed,” said Collins. “As fire agencies have grown and as dynamics in law enforcement have changed, what would have been a good concept at one point has changed over the last seven years. So we need to figure out how to go from where we are now to moving forward in the future while still meeting the same end goal.”

The county taking ownership of a second public safety vessel would not only stop arguments over damage, but more importantly keep the community safe, said Collins. However, as Krebs stressed, a public safety vessel has to be well cared for in order to be in safe running condition.

Both the sheriff’s department and fire department wish to work toward a relationship from which the community can benefit.

“As far as working together, you know, we are always wanting to and willing to work with our partners and we will do what we can to be the best partners in all other aspects,” said Krebs.

Similarly, Collins added, “With public service, we all just want to help the community.”

Contributed photo