District 2 firefighters seek new rescue boat

"Two Navy officers paddle through the frenzied water of Deception Pass in a canoe that tips over and spills them out. They clasp onto the overturned canoe, but the water is cold. A person can only last about 30 minutes in that kind of water.Someone on Deception Pass bridge sees the accident and calls 911.Miles away on North Whidbey, three men leave their jobs or homes and rush to the fire station. They grab the inflatable boat and go. They cruise up to the bridge in the water and find the men just in time, minutes before the succumb to hypothermia and sink like Leonardo DiCaprio to the bottom of the sea. After getting a water emergency call, it takes the firefighters from Island Fire District 2, North Division, an average of just 15 minutes to get to the pass. Yet the speedy rescuers may have to stay home in a year or so and let slower-responding agencies handle it - unless they can get a new boat.Richard Rivers, the department's water rescue coordinator, says that the department's current boat is simply worn out. The red boat - which looks like a giant, oblong inner tube - was new way back when Joe Piscopo was still popular.The seams have started to delaminate, he said. It's not safe. It's done its job. Time to retire.At most, Rivers says the boat has a year and a half of life left.The firefighters have started a fund-raiser to buy a new boat. They are looking into grants, as well as asking for donations from the public. Rivers says they hope to buy a 20-foot boat - which is a little larger than the current one - with two motors and a hard bottom.He says the extra motor is in case one breaks down. The hard bottom is so that the innertube can't be punctured when beached.A new rescue boat will cost around $60,000.According to Rivers, the department handles anywhere from 14 to 30 water rescue calls a year. Most of them come from Deception Pass during the summer, when tourists swarm the park. Sometimes it's a person who went for a swim without realizing how cold the water is or how strong the tide pulls. Other times, kayakers or canoers - like the two Navy men who were saved - get into trouble and need rescuing.More often, someone jumps from the bridge into the troubled water below. In these cases, Rivers says it's not really a rescue but a body recovery.When someone is in trouble in those waters, Rivers says every minute counts. The cold shrivels and numbs. The water moving with the tide is squeezed between the cliffs of the pass. It runs swift and swirls. The fire district is the fastest responder north of Dugualla Bay since it is closest. The county Sheriff's Office keeps a boat on a trailer over 20 miles away in Coupeville. The Coast Guard is at least 30 minutes away.All of the district's firefighters are trained in water rescue, Rivers says, and they are volunteers. For them, a water rescue is not a particularly safe or easy task. It's definitely not high tech.It's just three guys in a boat with flashlights and a hand-held radio, firefighters Pete Sobotta said.But the bottom line, Sobotta said, is that they save lives on a regular basis.-----------Staying afloatDonations for a new rescue boat for Island Fire District 2 can be sent to: North Division Volunteer Firefighters Association of District 2, 2720 North Heller Road, Oak Harbor. "

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