Cutting edge design

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Department signs contract for 3 fireboat

By John Barnhart

Smith Mountain Lake Volunteer Fire and Rescue will be on the cutting edge of marine firefighting technology when it takes delivery of its new fireboats next year.

    What’s more, the design work that put these boats on the cutting edge was done by five members of the fire department.

    The fireboats will be built by Boston Whaler, a company that’s been around for 50 years. According to Doug Natoce, a company representative, the company delivers between 300 and 500 boats every year to police departments, fire departments and the military. Nevertheless, the local design team taught them new ways to equip fireboats. In  fact, Boston Whaler wants to display one of the boats at a trade show in Indianapolis, Ind., in April. This show is touted to be the world’s largest firefighter training conference in the world.

    “These guys did their homework,” said Natoce, who called their work the best planned, best designed platform he has seen. “This is going to be a national showpiece.”

    The work that’s been done has already received national attention. Jack Gautier said he has gotten calls from several marine fire departments around the country.

    Natoce said that one interested marine fire department is at Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. That area was overwhelmed by a major wildland fire last year that destroyed a number of houses on the lake’s wooded shore.

    The lake fire department approached the work with a lot of experience behind them. They’ve been around since 1975 and Al Busch, the department’s captain and a member of the design team, said they respond to between 300 and 400 calls a year. These calls range from fighting fires to responding to boat accidents.

    The five man team designed the boats around Boston Whaler’s 27-foot Guardian Hull. According to Natoce, this hull will not sink, even if it’s flooded with water.

    Gautier said that the project began three years ago when he put together a design team consisting of himself, Busch, Ernie Powers, Assistant Chief Allan Cook and Greg Waters. They visited a number of trade shows as well as boat manufacturers.

    A couple of incidents quickly put two manufacturers out of the running. One of them delivered a fireboat to Newport News which sank while tied to a pier, before the fire department even took possession of it. Another manufacturer, that the local guys chose not to go with, ended up delivering a boat to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which flipped over in Halifax harbor only a few days after first being put in the water.

    The SML marine fire and rescue already has had positive experience with fireboats built by Boston Whaler and ultimately chose this company. The department signed the contract for three boats Wednesday, Dec. 10.

    Gautier said that the department needs the new boats for several reasons. The existing boats are getting old. The department lost one after it sank last year, for the second time, and it had to pull a second old boat out of service for safety reasons.

    A second reason is that increasing the fleet will reduce response times because the boats can be positioned to reduce the distance the department has to travel. That, plus better equipment, means that the fire department gets a better Insurance Service Organization (ISO) rating, as well as extending its ISO rated area. This, in turn, means that homeowners and businesses in the coverage area will get lower insurance rates. Depending on the rating the department qualifies for, businesses could save up to 30 percent on their insurance and homeowners up to 40 percent.

    A third reason is that the new equipment, based on the department’s years of experience on the lake, will enhance its effectiveness, and safety.

    The new boats will be equipped with a forward looking infrared camera. Crews don’t always have the benefit of daylight when they have to go looking for a missing person, or respond to a man overboard or accident. This camera will allow them to see a person in the water, in the dark, at a distance of a quarter mile. The new boats also have radar which will help the crews know what is around them in the dark and a screen with a GPS mapping chart and a live Satellite XM Weather Radar display.

    Sometimes department members aren’t on the lake to rescue, but rather to recover a body. The new boats have side imaging sonar which will allow them to locate a submerged body faster.

    Each boat is equipped with a 1,500 gallon-per-minute pump that can feed a deck gun or hose outlets. They each will carry 1,200 feet of three-inch hose. Water, of course, is no problem. A fireboat responding to fire near the shore has a whole lake-full of firefighting water available.

    Now, the department has to pay for the three boats that have been bought. Each boat, including all the equipment needed, costs $330,000. Bedford County and Franklin County have pitched in $150,000 each over a two-year period. The department also received $240,000 in insurance money for the boat that sank. Gautier said that this means the department must raise $460,000.

    Gautier said members will be calling on businesses operating on and near the lake for help as those will benefit most from the new boats.