Federal grant could buy equipment for safety on Columbia

VFD, county Fire & Rescue each hope to get new boats




The Vancouver Fire Department and a few other agencies are looking into using funds from a federal grant and support from private parties to expand marine response capabilities on the Columbia River.

The department, along with Clark County Fire & Rescue, the Portland Fire Bureau and Astoria (Ore.) Fire & Rescue are applying for a port security grant through the Department of Homeland Security. Vancouver hopes to get new a new boat out of the deal, which officials say would allow firefighters to respond more effectively to more problems on the river.

Division Chief Steve Eldred, head of emergency services for Vancouver, said the water-based program is nothing new.

“It’s a program we’ve been doing for a long time,” he said. “The problem is we don’t have (a boat) that supports the mission.”

The fire department’s current boat was bought about eight years ago on surplus, Eldred said. “It’s an old Coast Guard boat designed to do harbor work, not rescue work,” he added. The boat is really only meant for two passengers, but a few more can be squeezed in if necessary, he said.

It was used three or four times last month to assist with drowning cases, Eldred said.

The department wants a vessel that can respond to terrorist threats, search and rescue operations, shipboard fires and all kinds of water-based problems along the river.

The department identified that it needs a new boat, but the Area Marine Security Council hired consultants to investigate what resources are needed along the Columbia River and what agencies have private support to fund their programs.

Looking into buying a new fireboat during a time when city services have been cut back may raise an eyebrow or two.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina admits the timing is unfortunate, but asserts that the grant would work well because it would be used to provide something that isn’t a part of the department’s core services.

“Fire engines, fire stations are core assets the city should provide. An asset like a fireboat is something we can’t, within our regular core functions, maintain and operate,” Molina said.

That’s where the public-private partnership comes in.

The department won’t be asking the city for money to support the fireboat. Instead it hopes private organizations and individuals will fill the funding gaps, said Eldred, who oversees the marine program.

“I think the key piece is we aren’t going to the city and asking for additional money,” Eldred said. He said he hopes to find private sources that are willing to donate “in-kind contributions, money, training or whatever,” to help pay for the program.

Consultants with Vancouver-based Westby Associates are looking to see if parties such as the Port of Vancouver or other organizations with an interest in safety on the Columbia River may agree to support a program that can respond to more incidents on the water.

Their reports will be used to help decide what equipment is needed where, and which agencies have enough private support to fund their programs.

The consultants could decide Vancouver needs a boat, that needs elsewhere are greater, or that Vancouver doesn’t need a boat at all, Eldred said.

If Vancouver Fire Department gets a new boat, the city would be asked to staff the boat. But that won’t mean adding more positions.

If the department gets a new boat it will be staffed like the current one: a nearby station’s crew will be trained to use the boat and will operate it when necessary, Eldred said.

Clark County Fire & Rescue would use the same staffing method for the boat it is hoping to get from the grant, which would be much smaller than Vancouver fire’s boat, said Dan Yager, deputy chief of operations for the organization.

He said his department started looking into a way to get a new boat to prepare for expansion at the Port of Ridgefield and because it was worried about what would happen if a fire were to spark on the Ridgefield marina.

That isn’t because the area gets a high call volume. It’s because a fire would spread quickly through the old, wooden docks and tightly packed houseboats, Yager said.

“Frankly, every day we pray that a fire doesn’t start there,” he said. “The dream here is that we’re able to assist port security folks, the Coast Guard in security response issues and at the same time private investors will sustain the program.”

Consultants should finish the financial portion of the study in October, Eldred said. Their report will go back to Area Marine Security Council for final review in the late part of year.

If either local agency is awarded money, the boat purchase would have to be approved by city council (in the case of Vancouver) or the Clark County Fire & Rescue board.