2016-08-18 / Opinion


A Firestorm of Conversation

Seen next to North Kingstown’s “Moose Boat,” Newport’s current 22-foot rescue boat is far less stable and leaves victims exposed to the elements during transport. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Seen next to North Kingstown’s “Moose Boat,” Newport’s current 22-foot rescue boat is far less stable and leaves victims exposed to the elements during transport. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) A lively discourse has arisen, and not just by the regular naysayers, around Newport’s opportunity to obtain a federal Homeland Security grant that would cover three-fourths of the near-million-dollar cost of a new fire and rescue boat for the Fire Department. And, let us say it is a “fire-y” conversation.

The first time the council addressed the issue was at its Aug. 10 meeting, vetting the public’s concerns for about 30 minutes. But the firestorm on local blogs and Facebook postings was already in full-flurry. The council postponed the vote to accept the grant until their Aug. 24 meeting, thus continuing the dialogue.

As the public outcry for more information heated up, Councilor John Florez arranged an informal session at City Hall on Aug. 16 that included City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson and Fire Chief Peter Connerton, who fielded questions from about a dozen residents.

We agree with those who are demanding that as much information as possible be made available to the public before this issue is resolved. Ironically, this comes just a short while after a 37-foot cabin cruiser caught fire and sank near Rose Island on Aug. 13.

Of course, we understand the reasons why many think the city should grab this federal money and obtain a newer boat to replace the current, nearly 16-year-old rigid hull inflatable boat still in use by the Newport Fire Department.

So far, there does seem to be a consensus on many points to support the investment:

• The need for a newer rescue boat with greater capability is acknowledged by virtually all.

• The City Council has already recognized the need and allocated

$267,000 in the capital budget.

• With the federal grant, there would be nearly $26,000 left over on that budget line.

• All seem to recognize that we have a moral obligation to save lives.

There are also concerns that could come years from now, but cannot be casually ignored:

• What are the estimated maintenance costs for the high-tech equipment and electronics?

• How much personnel training will be needed?

• What is the extent and related cost of regulations that must be met with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management

Agency (FEMA)?

• Is there any other alternative to this one $964,500 boat?

The Newport Fire Department possesses two aerial trucks, three front line pumpers, two front line rescues and one reserve rescue, seven cars/ SUVs and trucks for various personnel and uses, two Jet Skis and one rescue boat. Last year, they responded to about 100 fires, mostly buildings but also numerous other rubbish and car fires, nearly 4,000 ambulance runs and 35 water rescues. When asked to compare “apples to apples” regarding firefighting equipment costs, the chief said aerial trucks cost approximately $1.2 million, pumpers $500,000, and rescue wagons $200,000.

When one looks at the core mission of the fire department and what their assets are, does the expenditure being deliberated make sense?

Is the city rushing headlong toward buying this new fire and rescue boat? Despite “the need for a lot of internal discussion,” as the city manager put it, when and how is City Hall going to communicate what their plan is?

So let’s continue the conversation. Let city councilors know how you feel about this. Whether aye or nay, you could help turn a firestorm of chatter into a perfect storm.

Newport belongs to the Narragansett Bay Marine Task Force, a water rescue program created in 2011 that includes 16 other nearby seaside communities as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and local harbormasters. The city is also part of a statewide mutual aid system for land-based structure fires (mutualaidplan.org/RI). State fire chiefs have divided the state into four regional mutual aid centers. Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Newport Naval Station, Jamestown, Bristol, Tiverton, Little Compton and Warren comprise the East Bay unit.

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