Keeping rescue above board: Shelburne Fire looks to replace aging rescue boat with help of grant

Photo by Lee Krohn
Shelburne Town Manager and volunteer firefighter Lee Krohn took this photo of Marine One a few years back when multiple agencies were called to help search for a missing person in Lake Champlain.

Staff Writer

The Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department is looking to replace its fire/rescue boat and is hoping a federal grant will help cover the cost.

It’s been part of the capital plan for years but repairs to the old boat have helped delay the need, according to Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Dwight Mazur.

In June, the department applied for the Federal Port Security Grant that would help purchase a new vessel. Grant recipients will be notified by the end of September, according to Mazur.

The grant is primarily intended for ports with commercial shipping, ports near a nuclear power plant or those with a large ferry service. But since Shelburne lacks a port, the odds of securing award money may be low, according to Mazur.

“There’s always a chance,” he said. “It’s not a great chance, but it’s there. We felt it was worth it.”

Should Shelburne receive the grant, it would help cover 75 percent of the cost of a new vessel, which the capital plan has listed at about $275,000. Ideally, the department would like a 28 to 30-foot boat with an enclosed cabin to shelter operators, crew and patients from the elements. The boat would have doors on the bow permitting rescuers to pull victims from the water. Its larger size would allow for greater stability and more room to conduct whatever first aid a victim may need before reaching an ambulance on shore, according to Mazur. It would also have enough storage for the boat and rescue equipment the crew currently keeps in a locked box on the dock, he said.

Photo by Madeline Clark
Shelburne Fire volunteers pose on Marine One, last Thursday, Aug. 22 at Shelburne Shipyard.

The new vessel would feature a fire hose capable of pumping between 500-600 gallons of water per minute, about five times as much as the current craft. That upgrade could help firefighters put out flames from a greater distance, reaching fiery boats or remote homes along the water where fire engines can’t easily navigate the land.

The current fire boat, Marine One, is a 22-foot Boston Whaler Dive Master that was built in the 1990s. It’s used for both fire and rescue calls, with search and rescue missions accounting for about 60 percent of its response.

Shelburne purchased its current boat for $30,000 at an auction in Santa Barbara, Calif., back in 2012, from a fisherman who himself purchased it at a federal auction in San Diego. The boat, formerly the property of the U.S. Navy, features a dive door, which was attractive to Shelburne firefighters because it permits them to pull victims from the water without hoisting them over the boat’s railing, Mazur said. But it’s a “wet deck” style vessel, meaning the deck floods with water when rescuers tilt the door to the water to grab a patient. While the boat’s pump can clean it up, it can make treating a patient challenging, Mazur said.

After getting the current vessel to Vermont, the Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department paid about $30,000 to outfit it for rescue operations, according to Mazur.

The modified boat hit the lake in 2013, where it and the five certified operators, nine rescuers and six deckhands – all volunteers – have aided the coast guard and neighboring towns with operations along the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. While Shelburne foots the bill for the boat and its upkeep, the town receives mutual aid from neighboring departments.

The department has deployed the boat as far north as Colchester and south as Ferrisburgh to help with fire and rescue calls, Mazur said.

“We go wherever we’re called to go if we can do it,” he said. The crew averages a response time from call to boat of about 12-15 minutes.

The fire boat has helped save numerous capsized boaters, cliff jumpers at Red Rocks in South Burlington, as well as some body recoveries. It even staffs the Burlington waterfront fireworks and the cross-lake swim in Charlotte, among other events.

Replacing Marine One has been on Shelburne’s Capital Plan for a number of years now, Mazur said, but Shelburne Fire has made repairs like filling the deck’s cracks with epoxy to extend the life of the boat. Eventually, those repairs won’t be enough though, Mazur said.

“The operators have noticed changes in the way it’s handling,” he said. “We know it’s happening but there’s no way to predict when it’s not going to be safe to take out anymore.”

The boat is aging, and the department suspects it is taking on water in its foam core, Mazur said. Moreover, its size only accommodates three rescuers at a time: one to operate the vessel, one to navigate and one to serve as a deckhand. Ideally, the boat would hold four or five rescue workers – plus any victims they respond to, he said.

“We knew down the road we’d be in a situation where we’d have to replace it,” Mazur said.

If grant money falls through, it’s likely the department will wait and apply again next year, Mazur said. In the meantime, they can patch the boat to keep it operational.

Another alternative, he said, would be to scale back the design and ask the town to make it a ballot item. The grant requires the boat to have certain equipment the department doesn’t necessarily need.

The department has used the boat on 87 rescue calls since it first took to the lake. It averages about 13 calls per year. According to Mazur, the coast guard increasingly calls upon it to help with operations along the lake.

“The boat has really been a valuable asset,” he said. “We’ve had some good saves.”

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