2016-08-11 / Front Page

Fireboat Decision Postponed

Boat Could Aid Rescues
By Tom Walsh


Newport city officials got a close look this week at the capabilities of a new rescue boat that can also help firefighters combat waterfront building blazes and boat fires in the harbor or bay. The North Kingstown vessel, at left, features a stable rear platform to ease the challenge of ocean rescues. The Newport City Council is pondering whether to obtain a similar rescue boat with 75 percent of the $964,500 cost covered by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant. The city’s cost, $241,000, would be $26,375 less than what was budgeted for a new rescue boat in this fiscal year. Like the North Kingstown vessel, the boat being eyed for Newport also features a front-end enclosure to better protect those rescued on the water. Newport’s current 22-foot rigid hull inflatable rescue boat, pictured at right, will be retired shortly after nearly 16 years of service. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Newport city officials got a close look this week at the capabilities of a new rescue boat that can also help firefighters combat waterfront building blazes and boat fires in the harbor or bay. The North Kingstown vessel, at left, features a stable rear platform to ease the challenge of ocean rescues. The Newport City Council is pondering whether to obtain a similar rescue boat with 75 percent of the $964,500 cost covered by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant. The city’s cost, $241,000, would be $26,375 less than what was budgeted for a new rescue boat in this fiscal year. Like the North Kingstown vessel, the boat being eyed for Newport also features a front-end enclosure to better protect those rescued on the water. Newport’s current 22-foot rigid hull inflatable rescue boat, pictured at right, will be retired shortly after nearly 16 years of service. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) In voting for a two-week continuance at their meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 10, Newport City Councilors have given themselves more time to consider whether to pursue a federal grant that would cover 75 percent of the costs of a new fire and rescue boat.

The unanimous decision to postpone action came after councilors peppered Newport Fire Chief Peter Connerton with questions on the need for the vessel, its capabilities, its costs, and possible policy implications that could come with accepting federal monies for the purchase.

Earlier that day, several councilors and City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. gathered on the dock at Perrotti Park to examine North Kingstown’s 3-year-old fireboat, which is similar to the one being considered for Newport.

“It’s a good line of inquiry and a good discussion, a good debate to have,” Nicholson said.

Newport’s current fireboat, a 22- foot “rigid hull inflatable boat,” is nearly 16 years old. “While it has proven to be a worthy platform for water rescue, it is time for it to be replaced,” the Newport Fire Department wrote in documentation supporting the request for the new, more elaborate fireboat.

The overall cost of the new vessel would be $954,500, with the city responsible for 25 percent of that, or $241,125. The federal government’s 75 percent share would be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a component of the Department of Homeland Security.

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, speaking to Newport This Week prior to the council meeting, said, “Right now I’m very open to it. I know that there are still a lot of questions and that people are looking for answers.” However, she explained that the city’s current budget already includes $267,500 to replace the city’s present rescue boat.

“So if we do this boat, we are $26,000 to the good,” Napolitano added.

While the proposed new vessel is termed a “fireboat” by its manufacturer, Moose Boats, the craft’s expectations seem to far exceed dousing flames on the bay or high seas.

For example, the Fire Department’s documentation maintains that the waterfront within the city’s “areas of responsibility” includes “infrastructure that provides for an array of soft and hard targets for a terrorist attack.” Included among them are the Newport Pell, Jamestown, Mount Hope and Sakonnet River bridges; Naval Station Newport; the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics at Quonset Point; and the future Block Island wind farm.

In making its case for the purchase, the department wrote that “These targets, if attacked, pose a large potential for loss of life as well as an even larger potential for economic loss in the area and region as a whole.”

Supporting documents also indicate that the “Port of Providence Marine Strike Team consists of four similar vessels moored in Providence, East Providence, Cranston and Warwick. The North Kingstown vessel is also similar to the boats in these other communities. Newport also belongs to the Narragansett Bay Marine Task Force in which member communities provide and receive emergency aid as needed.”

“Security in this day and age is important,” Napolitano said. “This is more like being proactive.”

If that’s the case, the mayor was asked, should crew members on the new fireboat carry guns?

“I don’t know,” she replied. “But if that question’s presented, it will have to be answered.”

Presented with the same question, Nicholson flatly said, “No. There is potential to work with the Newport police if needed.”

Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard has numerous questions about the proposed new fireboat. For one thing, she asked, “Why would Newport taxpayers have to pay for Homeland Security?” Leonard maintained prior to the council meeting, “People are mad. What it appears so far is that this would obligate us to do lots and lots of things. We can’t make a decision on this without answers.”

Connerton remarked, “It’s not just a fireboat. It has an extensive set of capabilities.” He said that it would be more accurate to describe the vessel as a “rescue boat with firefighting capabilities.”

The chief told Newport This Week, “We have averaged 23 water rescues per year over the past seven calendar years, with 35 water rescues performed in the calendar year 2015.”

Chris Anderson, a firefighter assigned to North Kingstown’s fireboat, said the vessel answered about 50 rescue calls in 2015.

Newport Councilor Lynn Ceglie said that most people believe that the Coast Guard fights fires on the water. “But they don’t,” she said. “The Coast Guard just secures the perimeter.” In her mind, a vessel such as the North Kingstown fireboat is like having “another fire engine.”

Matt Gineo of Oldport Marine Services, a significant presence in and around Newport Harbor, said that while he agrees the city needs a new fireboat, the Moose Boat vessel “might be overkill.”

He said that during the first few years with a new vessel, maintenance costs remain relatively low because the parts are new. And trouble with a new part is usually covered by the warranty.

“But in years six, seven, eight, nine and 10, the cost to replace things such as engines and the high-tech electronic parts that most new boats have can be astronomical,” Gineo said. “In this case, those issues need to be investigated… It has all the bells and whistles that have nothing to do with putting out a fire.”

In Middletown, meanwhile, Fire Chief Ron Doire said his community has a rescue boat that does not have firefighting capabilities. But he pointed out that unlike Newport, the Middletown shoreline has few high-end residential properties that would require a boat to combat a fire.

“Fortunately, boat fires are not that common,” Doire reported. “But it you did have one, it could have a devastating effect.” With most of today’s expensive yachts made of fiberglass, he said a serious onboard fire could burn such boats down to the water line.

“The new vessel would definitely help to diminish those risks in Newport,” Doire said.

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