New rescue boat raises hackles

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue commissioners disregarded objections and approved the start of advertising for bids on a new marine rescue boat.

The department’s current boats include a 2002 Extreme 21-foot, “Marine 21” inflatable and a 1984 Achilles 16-foot inflatable, “Marine 25.” The department is looking to replace the 16-foot boat with a larger, more powerful boat with a rigid hull and more advanced electronics.

At a price tag of $60,000 the replacement boat will dig deep into the department’s funds.

The commissioners voted unanimously last week to begin the process of purchasing the new boat much to the chagrin of at least one local resident.

John Aydelotte, Sr., founder of Marine Services and Assist based at Cornet Bay, questioned the need for the new boat. “Do we have a need for another . . . a true need?” he asked the commissioners, citing the marine assist and rescue services already available around Whidbey Island.

“You have the Sheriff’s Department, Coast Guard, Camano Fire Department and commercial services... we don’t need anymore cowboys,” Aydelotte said firmly. Also, his company goes to the aid of many boaters in distress in the hazardous waters of Deception Pass and throughout northern Puget Sound.

However, the Fire District is tasked with much more than fighting structure fires around Whidbey Island. In fact, the majority of their responses are rescue related involving medical emergencies, including some marine distress calls. This year has started busily for the district with over 200 calls having been responded to so far. Around 20 of these emergencies annually are marine rescue calls.

Aydelotte identifies the main problem hampering water rescues as agencies not communicating effectively. “The Keystone cops response is the result of not training together,” said Aydelotte. “We could do better with $60,000,”, suggested the money instead be used for training.

Most 911 marine distress calls turn out to be general assistance calls and not the “life and death” emergencies that require the services of the fire department. Regardless, once 911 has been called official response is mandated.

Calls for marine rescue have included boats stuck on sandbars, saving people from sinking vessels, body retrieval and searches for missing boaters. Some false alarms have also cropped up, requiring the same professional response from the rescue teams.

“You never know when it’ll be a real emergency and you have to treat all calls the same,” said Fire Chief Marvin Koorn.

Though motivated by mostly humanitarian reasons, Aydelotte also stands to lose business if the fire department expands its marine rescue operations. Towing, salvage and general help are several elements of service that boaters can pre-pay for through Aydelotte’s company.

Summer is the busy season for the rescue teams. Recreational boaters are out in force and not all of them are skilled enough to safely pilot the turbulent waters around North Whidbey.

Deception Pass is an area of critical concern for marine emergencies. The pass is not easy to navigate and has many unpredictable currents, rocks and eddies. Even the bridge over the pass has become infamous for its “jumpers.”

One problem is that North Whidbey Fire and Rescue is not specifically tasked with marine rescue and commits to rescue operations strictly because there is no other agency capable of a quick response.

Commissioner T.J. Lamont agrees that the fire district should not be the main agency for marine rescue in the county, noting that “the sheriff is tasked by the state with providing water rescue.”

The Island County Sheriff’s Office has a small marine rescue unit. Made up of six deputies, the sheriff’s office operates a single boat. The rigid-hull vessel is moored either in Coupeville or near the North Precinct depending on the need. There are no plans to expand the unit.

“It’s all about the dollars .... or lack there of,” said Sheriff Mike Hawley when asked about the situation.

“If we didn’t do it, who would?” said Koorn, citing the inability of sheriff’s deputies to always react quickly and get a boat in the water in time to save lives.

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