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Watertown fire department hopes to expand boat rescue squad with state grant

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Watertown will apply for a $138,876 grant for boat rescue equipment for the Fire Department, despite the objections of two City Council members.

By a 3-2 vote Monday night, council members authorized the Fire Department to seek funding for “swift water” rescue equipment that would be used on the Black River and other tributaries to outfit a five-person squad.

The Fire Department has a boat rescue squad, but it has been depleted by retirements and an aging department, said Chief Dale C. Herman.

Out of the $138,000 state Homeland Security grant, $70,453 would be used to purchase a 14-foot Zodiac motorized inflatable boat, dry suits, a Stokes basket, night vision goggles and other supplies and equipment. The remaining amount would be used for 1,584 hours of training for 18 firefighters.

Councilmen Joseph M. Butler and Jeffrey M. Smith voted against applying for the grant, contending they did not believe the Fire Department needs to apply for such equipment as sleeping bags, mosquito repellent and rope.

“I’m not completely on board with it,” Mr. Butler said, adding it seemed like the department had put together “a dream list” of equipment and supplies.

And Mr. Smith wondered why the city Fire Department needs a boat rescue squad when Jefferson County already has the Special Tactics and Rescue squad, so it would be a duplication of services.

But Chief Herman disagreed, saying the squads have different functions. He stressed that the STAR squad is involved in “scuba business” and the Fire Department’s squad is involved in “swift water business,” or rescues involving bodies of water with currents moving in one direction.

He also took issue that it was a dream list, noting that they need such items as sleeping bags and bug spray because squad members may go out of the area and be away for a few days. The equipment also is required by the state for the group to become a certified regional boat rescue squad.

Before the vote, Mr. Butler asked that the resolution be tabled, but the fire chief told council members they needed to act on it Monday night because the grant application is due today.

Housed at the South Massey Street fire station and able to deploy at a moment’s notice, the squad dramatically increases the chance of rescuing a victim before he or she suffers serious injury or death, city officials said.

The fire chief said firefighters have gone on five rescues during the past year. They include the rescue of a man who fell into the Black River last spring and suffered a dislocated shoulder, rescuing three children swimming last summer who became stuck in the middle of the river and the rescue of a man who jumped into the river from the Court Street bridge in November.

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