Fire & Rescue boat talks resume on Hilton Head

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJanuary 14, 2013 

Hilton Head Island fire officials again are asking the town to buy a fire-rescue boat.

The town needs the boat to fight fires near the water, contain hazardous spills and make quicker water rescues, according to town Fire & Rescue Division Chief Lavarn Lucas.

Currently, the town depends mostly on the U.S. Coast Guard for rescue service on its 21 square miles of waterways, according to the Fire & Rescue department's 2013 Strategic Plan. Coast Guard boats launched from Tybee Island can reach Hilton Head within 30 minutes in good sea conditions.

About a year ago, the town passed up a $300,000 grant offered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase and equip a 26-foot boat with twin outboard engines.

At the time, council members expressed concerns about maintenance, docking and training costs -- which would have been as high as $46,000 up front -- and the lack of need for the boat.

Last spring, a small marsh island near Spanish Wells Road caught fire and smoldered for three days. Lucas said the fire department could have extinguished the blaze within five hours if it had a boat. However, he added that the boat would be used mainly for water rescue, not fighting fires.

Lucas said no additional personnel would be needed for the boat.

The boat is one of the 54 items listed in a plan submitted by the Fire & Rescue Division to the Town Council's Public Safety Committee last week. The plan will be discussed item-by-item in meetings this month.

Lucas said he doesn't expect the council to approve the boat purchase this time, but he believed "it would be somewhat disingenuous to submit a plan that outlines the direction and resources that we need over the next 10 years and not include it."

The plan will be heard by a different audience this year. Two of the three Public Safety Committee members are new Town Council members. One of them, Councilman Marc Grant, the committee's chairman, said he is unfamiliar with the issue and has not yet made a decision about the boat.

The other new member, Councilman John McCann, said he doesn't know if one boat could sufficiently serve the island and worries about the maintenance costs.

"Ask anybody who's ever owned a boat. The operating cost is more expensive than owning the boat sometimes," he said.

Town manager Steve Riley was not optimistic about the boat's chances for approval. Riley said he encourages town staff to ask for the things they need, but added, "Council has already made it clear to me that they don't want to fund it."

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