A recent boating fire incident once again brought to light the need for safety awareness and our vulnerability to potential life and property loss. Marco Island is a boating community and destination. There are over 100 miles of interior waterways with 6,000 registered watercraft on the island and over 30,000 in the county. In addition, we have five marinas and seven fueling areas for boats.
Many of these marinas have millions of dollars of inventory in high-end yachts, as well as moderately priced recreation and pleasure craft equally important to their owners. In addition to the marinas, many of our homeowners have their boats docked in the waterways behind their homes. Marco Island also serves as a port for the Key West-Marco Island Shuttle and readers may recall there was an offshore collision incident involving this boat that resulted in one death.
Boater safety education is critical but like any transportation vessel, accidents can happen and fires do occur on board. The difference, however, with a boat fire, accident or medical emergency, is that the land based fire truck and ambulance cannot drive on water to help boaters in trouble.
Whom do you call and how do they get there? The obvious answer is the fire department and currently they get there on boats that are woefully ill-equipped to provide safe rescue and emergency medical response while battling a fire or other serious event on board.
When the boat exploded in the recent fire incident, the two passengers were lucky they escaped unhurt and could swim to shore unaided. This writer met with Chief Murphy recently and he relayed stories where the outcome was not the same, a boating fire that resulted in a death, an offshore accident that killed four people and multiple incidents of searches, diver drowning and backwater jet-ski injuries.
“During the recent boat explosion we saw firefighters on a boat that is the fire truck and ambulance on water without the critical equipment required to quickly resolve the fire which engulfed the vessel.” The Pathfinder had a 100 gallon per minute pump which the Chief has since removed from the vessel because it is inadequate to fight fires.
The fire department purchased two boats 12 years ago, a Donzi and a Pathfinder. They are shared by both the fire and police departments and have been well used over the years. They are recreational boats that were purchased and modified for use by the departments, by the police for patrol and the firefighters for emergencies. The fire department has requested funding in its budget to purchase a fully functional fire boat for the past several years. “We are looking for a vessel with a platform to safely retrieve boaters from the water and get the injured requiring backboards on board without further injury,” according to the Chief.
During a recent marine emergency response, firefighter/paramedics assisted a woman out of the water after she had been ejected from a capsized boat. There is no platform on Pathfinder to safely lift a victim out of the water on to the fire boat. The firefighter/paramedics had to lean over the side of the boat and pull the woman to safety up the side of the boat and into the vessel. Of course, she sustained very sore ribs for several days after the incident.
Captain Tom Bogan explained. “Our primary concern was to ensure the victim’s airway was open and she was breathing. We had to lift her out of the water to safety as quickly as possible to prevent drowning.”
There is no optimum strategy to place an injured boater on a backboard and lift him to safety with the current boat. There is no adequate place on the boat to perform lifesaving CPR or even administer wound or burn care. Still, the firefighter/paramedics must, and do, provide emergency care to boating victims on Pathfinder by adapting to the limitations of the boat.
This writer observed the Captain and firefighter/paramedics, Christian Holmes and Sergio Deleon, prepare the boat for a simulated emergency call. The men loaded a cart with gear from the fire truck including breathing tanks and medical response equipment as well as a backboard.They quickly trundled the cart to a gate which had to be unlocked and to the dock where the Pathfinder is moored in the river behind Station 50, located at 751 Elkcam Circle.
The men moved expeditiously, taking the exercise seriously as a genuine emergency and loaded, boarded and started the engine. “Once the gear is removed from the fire truck it is out of service for any land emergency,” cautioned Captain Bogan.
We boarded the Pathfinder and I could see at once there was no adequate space for an injured victim to be secured on a backboard. The size and layout of the vessel does not serve the two immediate needs of rescue and fighting fire. Multiple victims would require additional responders and vessels which are not always available.
Firefighter/paramedics, Holmes and Deleon are members of MERT, Marine Emergency Response Team and are trained to handle marine calls which involve medical emergencies on board ship and in the water. Both men described Pathfinder as a police chase boat which they have managed to adapt to their medical, rescue and fire fighting responsibilities. They describe busy weekends on Marco’s waterways.
The men particularly noted that a principal cause of boating mishaps is due to the lack of experience of boat operators. Many boaters are visitors to the Marco area who are unfamiliar with under water hazards, tides and terrain along the mangroves and approaches to islands surrounding Marco Island and Goodland. Speed and alcohol are also contributors to boating accidents and injuries.
Chief Murphy described the 100 miles of waterways on and around Marco Island and Goodland. “We must be prepared to meet the number of on board fire, search and rescue events which occur every year. Generally, there are 50 to 100 events yearly. It is not viable to call in the Coast Guard because their mission has changed to homeland security.”
In a recent water emergency when support was requested, the responding community was not able to arrive for 43 minutes. Thus, Marco Island’s fire department is, in most cases, the single resource for boaters in trouble on our waters, especially if the one crew on duty at the Isles of Capri is on a call.
“This boat is at its point of no return for active service as a fire fighting rescue vessel,” noted Christian Holmes. “We need an aluminum commercial grade fire boat with a 1500 gallon a minute water pump which also creates and stores foam. Foam is very good on a hydrocarbon fire, i. e., a gasoline fire.”
Marco Island is not considered a high priority for grants, although the department has applied but has not met the criteria. Other communities, with smaller tax bases than Marco Island are given first consideration. Emphasis is also given to port cities where there are huge homeland security concerns.
Chief Murphy hopes to sell one of the existing boats and use the proceeds as a down payment for lease purchase of a fully functional vessel. The cost of a properly fitted boat with an area for two backboards, foam and a built in fire pump with a 15 year useable service life, like a fire truck, would have to be bid out and can be financed for seven to ten years. Impact fees could be used to make the payment due in the second year because the boat would qualify as providing new service capabilities. If the balance of payments of $50,000+ per year were spread over the next several years, then future users of the fire rescue services would be helping to pay for the services they may need to access.
If there is a donor in our community who would like to gift a properly equipped fire rescue boat, Chief Murphy and his firefighters would be most grateful. Naming rights are a definite possibility. Perhaps there are several donors who would consider taking on a year or two of the expense of a lease purchase. Please stop in to visit with the Chief and talk over the possibilities. He is available with just a phone call to 239-389-5040 to make sure he is in the station. His office is in the station at 1280 San Marco Road.