OCEAN CITY — Despite some misgivings about a perceived antiquated funding formula, resort officials this week approved a roughly $192,000 expenditure to get the fire department’s Fire Boat 1, which has been dry-docked for over a year, back into service.
During Tuesday’s work session, the Mayor and Council had before them a request to transition Fire Boat 1 from twin inboard motors to outboard motors. The entire cost of the project, which includes the price of the motors and the new equipment and fabrication needed to complete the transition comes with an estimated price tag of over $241,000, but the department has secured a Maryland Waterways grant of $50,000, bringing the town’s expenditure down to around $192,000.
The fire-rescue boat was put into service in 2013. It had twin 350 horsepower diesel engines along with twin pumps for fire suppression that can pump 1,250 gallons per minute. It also has an integrated 25-gallon foam suppression system for flammable liquid fires. It also includes state-of-the art EMS and patient care equipment, on-board rescue swimmer equipment and dive team equipment. The fire-rescue boat has the unique ability to respond to fire and EMS incidents in shallow areas not always navigable for larger fire boats.
However, in August 2020, during an emergency response in the ocean, one of the vessel’s two inboard motors blew and the fire boat had to limp in on one engine. The fire boat has been dry-docked since as department officials and a consultant explored the most cost-efficient way to get it back in the water. After careful research, it was determined the best way to accomplish that was to transition to the twin outboard motors, according to Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers.
“It’s been out of service for a year because of a blown motor,” he said. “We worked with a local marine engineer and the best option is to transition from inboard motors to outboard motors.”
When asked about alternative solutions, First Assistant Chief Will Savage said replacing the fire boat entirely would be cost prohibitive. He also said if the boat was not repaired and put back into service, the town ran the risk of having to pay back a portion of the original state grant that helped fund the original.
“In 2020, we blew a motor and it has been out of service since,” he said. “If we blow one motor, we’re going to have to do the other one. To replace the boat would be $750,000 and it would be smaller.”
Mayor Rick Meehan asked if changing from the inboard motors to the outboard motors would affect the fire boat’s functionality in terms of getting into shallow areas. Savage explained the fire boat with the inboard motors would draw around 18 inches, while the outboards would draw about 22 inches, so the change would be negligible. Meehan also asked if the fire boat with the outboard motors would be limited to the back bays and canals, but Savage said it would still have offshore capability.
Councilman Mark Paddack asked for some examples of recent uses of the department’s fire boat. Savage said a couple of examples included responding to a waterfront house fire in Ocean Pines, and a sportfishing vessel on fire offshore with people on board. Savage also said the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) often calls on the department’s fire boat to assist with missing persons in the water, or for suspects in crimes who have run and maybe entered the water.
When asked just where the fire boat responds, Savage said Ocean City town limits are the first-due response area, although there are times when the fire boat assists allied agencies outside city limits, which, on the water, extends roughly to the center of the bays.
“The majority of our calls for service are in our first-due areas,” he said. “We respond to calls in our canals or waterfront homes.”
Councilman John Gehrig asked if the fire boat had missed many calls since being out of service and asked for examples. Bowers explained some of the larger incidences of missed calls.
“Last summer, we had a boat on fire just outside the Inlet with multiple people on board,” he said. “The Coast Guard had to take that call because we were out of service.”
Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company Fire Chief John Fisher explained some of the fire boat’s other responsibilities.
“It’s also a rescue boat,” he said. “We have at least one jet ski accident every day in the summer. This boat can go out and bring two victims back. Our smaller boats can only handle one victim at a time.”
The fire boat’s swim platform needs to be modified with the transition from twin inboard motors to the new outboard motors. The changes are required so victims can be more easily loaded onto the boat and the rescue swimmers and divers can exit and enter the boat from the water.
Other operational expenses due to the transition from inboards to outboards includes a new fire pump as the old motors operated the current fire pump. The transition to outboards renders the existing fire pump setup useless. In addition, the transition requires a change from diesel from the old inboards to gasoline for the outboards, resulting in some operational changes and additional expense.
The council ultimately voted to approve the transition to outboard motors for the fire boat and the estimated cost, but not before a larger discussion about how and who should pay for it. It was explained the OCVFC owns the fire apparatus based on an arrangement that goes back decades. Gehrig questioned if the town does not own the fire boat, why was the town buying the new motors. Budget Manager Jennie Knapp explained.
“The fire apparatus is titled to the volunteer fire company,” she said. “It is not eligible for the Vehicle Trust Fund, which is in place for municipally-owned vehicles. It’s a liability issue. That’s how it started.”
Meehan tried to provide some historical context.
“If you go back 40 years ago, the volunteer fire company was the fire service,” he said. “That was before we merged the volunteers with the career paid fire department. The volunteer company owned the apparatus and the town provided 50% of the cost. Things changed, and the city now pays 80% of the cost and the volunteer company pays 20% of the cost. We established a fire apparatus fund to avoid any major one-time expenses.”
Despite questions about the funding formula, not only for the current fire boat, but future fire apparatus, Bowers said it was imperative to get it back in the water.
“It is really needed,” he said. “This is the most cost-effective way to get it back in the water.”
The council ultimately agreed and approved the expenditure to transition the dry-docked fire boat from inboards to outboards. However, Gehrig and Council Secretary Tony DeLuca continued to question if the formula should be revisited in the future.
“We really should change something,” said DeLuca. “This should be in the Vehicle Trust Fund or the Fire Apparatus Fund. It needs to be somewhere. We need to eliminate these surprises and out-of-budget cycle requests.”
The council voted 6-1, with Councilman Peter Buas opposed, to approve the $192,000 expenditure. Gehrig then made a motion to look into the whole relationship with the OCVFC and apparatus expenditures, a motion which passed unanimously.