Council debates using grant to buy fire-rescue boat

Efforts by the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division to purchase a fire and rescue boat with a federal grant stalled Tuesday.

Town Council members questioned the need and cost to operate, maintain, fuel and store the proposed 26-foot, twin outboard engine boat.

Hilton Head received a nearly $300,000 port security grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"I don't see we need this response at this particular cost," Ward 5 Councilman and Sea Pines resident George Williams, Jr. said.

The boat would allow the division to fight boat- and land-based fires accessible only by water, as well as rescue, treat and transport critically injured or ill patients on or in the water and mitigate the spread of hazardous materials spilled from watercraft.

Currently, the town cannot respond to fire, rescue or emergency care in a marine environment. Town limits include 21 square miles of tidal waters.

The grant does not require the town to match dollars, but would cost it about $20,000 to train and certify existing staff as well as an estimated $9,000 a year in maintenance and fuel, said fire chief Lavarn Lucas

No additional staff would be hired, Lucas said. Some on council worried the boat will also bring additional personnel cost.

The boat would be stored at a fire station and towed to the closest available boat ramp until the town could find space at an island a marina.

Response to emergencies in town waters has been a "hodge podge," Lucas said, with the island relying on the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Coast Guard for search and rescue missions. The sheriff's office, however, does not have the capability to fight fires or control hazardous materials, he said.

The Coast Guard also must come from Tybee Island or Charleston, which delays response, Lucas said. It also will not fight a marine- or land-based fire unless people are trapped, he said.

In the past 10 years, fire & rescue staff has responded to about 90 incidents of people in the water, about 80 boat fires and more than 60 calls concerning hazardous materials.

Some on council were not convinced.

"I think that should be the responsibility of the county or other agencies," Ward 4 Councilwoman and Palmetto Dunes resident Kim Likins said.

Ward 1 Councilman Bill Ferguson disagreed.

"I'm not one for turning down free money," he said.

Council ultimately referred the matter to the Public Safety Committee for review. The proposal will then come back to council for further consideration.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

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