Patrol boat in center of police, fire tug-of-war

Town officials are still working out the formal arrangement, with some fire department personnel renewing calls for greater control

The Advocate

GREENWICH, Conn. — Technically speaking, Greenwich's newest patrol boat is called a CBRNE vessel. It stands for a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear- and explosive-detecting multifunctional watercraft.

Because of its hybrid nature, the state-of-the-art boat, paid for by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is continuing to be the reason a tug-of-war about how it will be operated and by whom — with the Fire Department recently renewing its case for greater access to the craft.

Town officials are still working out the formal arrangement — "a memo of understanding" — on the use of the boat, with some Fire Department personnel renewing calls for greater control.

"It has firefighting functions on it, so of course we want it," said fire union President John Novak. "I feel we have a need for access on the water," noting the Fire Department had no dedicated watercraft for emergencies on the town's busy shoreline.

"We don't have any capacity. Any additional apparatus would be a good addition," Novak said.

The 37-foot vessel is capable of a range of activities and joint operations that involve firefighting, search-and-rescue, medical support, scuba-diving and anti-terrorism functions. It has a pump and hose that can blast 2,000 gallons of water a minute to fight fires.

When the grant was made by Homeland Security, town leaders worried about cost and staffing, and decided the vessel would be assigned to the Police Department's Marine Division, which includes two other boats. Annual operating costs — fuel, insurance, maintenance and other expenses — are in the $20,000 range.

Paramedics from Greenwich Emergency Medical Service have also been trained to use the equipment on the boat.

The firefighters union earlier filed a complaint against the town for neglecting to include them in negotiations over staffing and control of the vessel, and town officials are still seeking a negotiated settlement.

The current plan for the boat is for police officers to operate it and pick up firefighters and other emergency personnel, including GEMS staff, when needed.

Discussions are underway about whether Fire Department personnel could be trained to operate the boat, a move which would involve additional expenses.

"There's a cost to training them to operate it. We're looking at $100,000 just to train them to operate boat," First Selectman Peter Tesei said.

"We're working through a practical arrangement," Tesei continued. "Fire has a legitimate concern. We're going to work it through."

Police Chief Jim Heavey called the recent discussions productive and downplayed talk of interdepartmental friction.

"We work together all the time, and we're working on this," he said. "It's a process. There's a lot to it. We want to continue our partnership with the Fire Department. Now we have to sort out the details."

Heavey said the boat presented a number of technical challenges.

"Our officers receive a considerable amount of training to operate it," he said.

The 26,000-pound craft uses jet-type engines and is unlike recreational boats. Operators also need to be trained to use it in the worst possible weather conditions, the chief said, noting Greenwich waterways are lined with hidden obstructions that boat pilots need to know. Special swimming training is also a necessity and is part of discussions.

Greenwich Fire Chief Peter Siecienski said the department wants to see its personnel operate the boat in certain circumstances. Fire personnel needed to be trained to pilot the craft for operations involving hazardous materials and firefighting, he said.

"There were going to be certain times when the Fire Department (is) piloting the vessel. That was part of the agreement," he said. "We're pretty close to ironing out those details. They don't want just anyone jumping behind the wheel. I understand that."

Under terms of the Homeland Security grant, the vessel must be made available for use in other jurisdictions should a need arise -- from the harbor in lower Manhattan to waterways up and down Long Island Sound.

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