The city will apply for a grant to cover part of the cost of a rescue boat after the City Council approved a request from Decatur Fire & Rescue over the mayor's objections.
The council, with some expressions of reticence, voted unanimously Monday night to approve an application for a $581,933 Port Security Grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant requires a city match of $146,566.
It's not the first time the city has debated the purchase of a boat. After initially opposing applying for a Port Security Grant in 2014, the council reversed course. The Police Department obtained a grant in 2015 and bought a rescue boat that it still operates.
Community Development Manager Allen Stover said the grant for the Fire Department would be used in part to buy a $480,000 rescue boat and $60,000 in cybersecurity software. It would also pay for $32,000 in training to use the boat.
Mayor Tab Bowling spoke out against submitting the application because the proposed purchases are not in the budget. He said Decatur Fire & Rescue already has a number of needs ahead of buying a rescue boat on its priority list.
“We’re already building a fire station (on Danville Road as the new Station 5),” Bowling said. “They want to increase paramedics’ pay. They would like another firetruck and, at some point, we’ll have to build a Station 9 (in the area north of the Tennessee River).”
Bowling said the industries that the Fire Department protects on the Tennessee River are in the police jurisdiction and there is a move in the state Legislature to eliminate the police jurisdictions.
The city receives sales and use tax revenues to pay for providing protection in the PJ, but that would disappear.
“I believe that the Legislature could end police jurisdictions in the 2022 session,” Bowling said.
Fire Chief Tracy Thornton said the boat is a major need for the department, which now depends on the all-volunteer Morgan County Rescue Squad when there’s a problem on the Tennessee River.
The city doesn’t pay the Rescue Squad for its aid and the use of the boat. Instead, the city gives annual allocations of $15,000 to the nonprofit.
“Our department has been pushing major needs down the road for years,” Thornton said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve applied for the grant to get this boat. We’ve applied three times. We’ve been pushing the paramedics' pay increase for 25 years, and Engine 8 needs to be in the replacement cycle.
“We have a lot of needs and, unfortunately, our needs come with a pretty high price tag.”
Thornton said his department has a great relationship with the Rescue Squad, but there are problems with the city not having its own boat.
“It’s still their vessel and sometimes in the past we’ve had to wait for them to come from work or home,” Thornton said.
Thornton said the new 32-foot boat with an outboard motor would be big enough to place hazardous material boons in case of a spill by one of the local industries, but still small enough to tow on a trailer. It would also have a 2,000-gallon water pump that the Rescue Squad boat lacks, and it can spray foam on fires.
Thornton said his department also wants to have trained divers at each of its fire stations.
Councilman Billy Jackson said the city needs to take advantage of the grant opportunity because it might not get another chance.
Jackson said Decatur needs a boat like this so it won’t have the same kind of tragic fire that occurred in Scottsboro. Eight people died in the fire that began on one boat and quickly spread to nearby boats tied to slips at Jackson County Park marina in September.
Jackson said he knows that Scottsboro “wishes they had a boat like this."
“Hindsight is always 20-20 when you have an incident, and it’s always better to be prepared,” Jackson said.
Bowling said Community Development inspects the local marinas to “make sure they’re equipped for dealing with fire and those living on house boats can quickly exit safely."
Councilman Hunter Pepper agreed with Thornton.
“As a city situated on a riverfront, we need a rescue boat,” Pepper said.
Uncertainty over expenses
Council President Jacob Ladner and Councilman Carlton McMasters were concerned about the ongoing costs and maintenance.
“I wish I knew exactly what the costs are,” Ladner said.
McMasters said his reservations are that the expense isn’t in the budget and that the Fire Department has many other needs.
“But, if the boat saves one life or helps them put out one fire, then it’s worth it,” McMasters said.
Police Chief Nate Allen on Tuesday said he department's police boat is different from the rescue boat wanted by Decatur Fire & Rescue. The Police Department's boat is a 26½-foot Rivercraft vessel with a rigid hull, inflatable sides and twin 150-horsepower motors. Additional equipment includes a package designed for the detection of chemical, biological and nuclear emissions.
"The fire boat has a pumper," Allen said. "The biggest difference is the police boat has rails all around and the fire boat has a flat deck on the back for making it easier to pull a person into the boat."
Even after the Police Department received the grant in 2015 to buy the boat, the council didn't support the $183,000 purchase until local industries covered the city's $41,255 match and paid for operating expenses.