A Town Council committee remains unconvinced Hilton Head Island needs a fire-rescue boat, despite incidents last week in which two people were rescued after a shrimp boat ran aground in Calibogue Sound and another boat caught fire off the coast.
It might be convinced, however, if Beaufort County is willing to share the cost.
Members of the Public Safety Committee Tuesday deferred a decision on whether to accept a nearly $300,000 U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant to buy a 26-foot, twin outboard engine boat.
Committee members said they want to explore a cost-sharing agreement with the county before making a decision.
"We as a community absorb a tremendous cost for Beaufort County by providing EMS services that otherwise would be required to be provided by the county," said committee member Kim Likins. "... For Beaufort County not to have any stake in this, I think, is not fair."
County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he and other county officials are willing to discuss such an agreement but said the boat must be available throughout the county.
While the grant does not require matching funds, it would cost the town about $46,000 initially to train and certify existing staff as well as pay for annual maintenance, fuel, insurance and storage costs, said Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division Chief Lavarn Lucas. No additional staff would be hired, he said.
Lucas warned that estimate is high and most -- if not all of it -- could be covered through additional grant money.
Tuesday's meeting grew tense as the committee questioned repeated statements by Lucas about the town's liability and potential harm to the environment if it can't respond to a fire, rescue, emergency care or hazardous material spill in a marine environment.
Town limits include 21 square miles of tidal waters.
He used last week's incidents as examples.
If fire and rescue staff had a boat, it could have responded quicker to rescue the two on the shrimp boat, as well as the five pulled from a life raft after their 75-foot recreational vessel caught fire about nine miles off the coast.
In the case of the shrimp boat, the pair had to wait about 30 minutes for a U.S. Coast Guard boat launched from Tybee Island. A Coast Guard helicopter already in the air was diverted to the scene. Those in the life raft were rescued by another boat, according to the Coast Guard in Charleston.
"Imagine if that boat was one of those that sit off the 18th green at Harbour Town Golf Links during the Heritage golf tournament," Lucas said, "on national TV, burning with no one responding to help and with the Coast Guard 45 minutes to an hour away."
There have been 20 boat fires in the last five years within town limits, he said. Fifteen were at docks and five were in the water.
"Typically, with a boat fire at a marina, there's only one way to attack it ... And fighting a fire on a floating dock is very dangerous. You put fire fighters in a difficult and life-threatening situation," he said, adding the Coast Guard will not fight a fire unless people are trapped.
Town councilman George Williams, Jr. took issue with Lucas' report, calling it a "doomsday presentation." He said purchasing the boat would not have made "a bit of difference" in the outcome of many of the incidents Lucas described.
Committee member Lee Edwards also questioned the demand for such a boat.
"Most instances seem faster having people brought back to a marina or boat ramp with an ambulance waiting than launching a boat," Edwards said.
Lucas warned the Department of Homeland Security has said it wants an answer "ASAP."
"If you don't want the boat or grant, the county is more than willing to take it off your hands," Tanner said. "... This is a way to recoup federal taxes you have paid and put it at the local level for use. The grant will be given to someone. The question is whether you're willing to have that come to help the residents and visitors of Hilton Head."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead