Future brighter for fire-rescue boat Despite criticism, study suggests keeping service

April 08, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's beleaguered fire-rescue boat is on budgetary life support, but seems likely to survive another season.

Despite criticism last year from County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo of Dundalk and even from firefighters' union President Kevin B. O'Connor, the 25-foot Boston Whaler won the recommendation of a recent Fire Department study.

And County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III probably will budget enough money to keep the boat active along the county's 173 miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline this year, said county spokesman Michael H. Davis. It may be staffed fully, however, only during the day on weekends and holidays.

For now, the boat has no regular staff, and firefighters who get a call for assistance must race from the Chase station to the private Bowley's Quarters marina where the boat is docked, before they can get under way.

"From the time we get a call until we're on the water it takes us 20 minutes," said fire Capt. Louis M. Libertini, the boat's commander. "That's a big delay when someone is injured," he said.

Noting that 63 percent of the emergency calls in 1994-1995 occurred at night or on weekdays, the Fire Department study recommends full-time, around-the-clock staffing of the boat between April 1 and Oct. 31. It would cost nearly $300,000 for a three-person crew and boat upkeep and fuel, the study estimated.

The study also recommended moving the boat to a new facility, which would cost $121,000, at Strawberry Point, at the tip of Martin State Airport on Frog Mortar Creek off Middle River. County police and Maryland Department of Natural Resources boats are based there. Even Mr. DePazzo, who in May complained that the twin-engine vessel is no more than an expensive toy for firefighters, now says he wants it to remain in service. The councilman's Dundalk district includes waterfront from Back River south to the Patapsco River.

"I'm going to go along with it," he said, noting that he still doesn't think much of the boat's firefighting potential. "The emergency medical thing does present a need," he said, citing the hundreds of small boats and personal watercraft that ply the waters around Hart-Miller Island, one mile from the Back River Neck peninsula.

That was also the point of letters from the Coast Guard and DNR urging the boat remain in service. Mark Wheeler, area manager for DNR, said, "The need for a well-trained Emergency Response Marine Unit is very obvious."

Coast Guard officials also noted, in a separate letter, that "Marine Unit 59 [the boat] is better equipped, trained and qualified than local Coast Guard units," which can take two hours to respond to vessel fires and medical emergencies.

The problem remains the county's inability to staff the vessel full time during warm weather, when 400 to 800 boats may use the shoreline waters on weekend days, according to DNR estimates.

County budgets are stretched, and the Fire Department, which hasn't hired any firefighters in two years, was told to ask for less money this year.

That was also the basis for Mr. O'Connor's criticism last year. "The county should either staff it or do away with it," he said, arguing that the boat drains resources from hard-pressed land units.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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