|The Applied Rescue Technique inflatable rescue tube, distributed by Hawill’s Ltd., is a multi-tasking tool, useful for both water and ice rescues.|
Often when the economy tanks, fire department specialty teams and training take the hit first. Whether it’s creative funding, multi-tasking or compromising, water and ice rescue teams are fishing for options to save money while continuing to respond.
Quicker and cheaper search and recovery missions were on dive team coordinator Todd Rishling’s mind when he looked into getting a side-scan sonar for his fire department dive team in Elk Grove Village, Ill., last year. The sonars are not cheap – about $50,000 with accessories – but they allow divers to map large bodies of water. This gives them a better idea of where to look for victims before having to waste time and money combing an entire lake or pond.
For funding, Rishling dove into his department’s Foreign Fire Tax fund, which is money that municipalities pay to fire departments and districts in the state of Illinois. But he had some explaining to do to the tax board first.
“A lot of it they didn’t understand, so I wrote justification papers with needs assessments and cost-savings,” he said. “Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money. We laid out a training plan, saying that every time we dive we will use this tool.”
The team got the money to buy the sonar.
Elk Grove Village, northwest of Chicago by O’Hare International Airport, is a highly industrial area with a lot of ponds, and it has up to a dozen dive, water and ice rescue incidents a year. But the fire department dive team participates in many more dive calls with the MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) Division One dive team, which handles larger regional incidents. Meanwhile, according to Rishling, funding and staffing reductions are occurring regionwide.
“My department wants to cut training back and is talking about downsizing our teams,” he said. “They don’t want to because we have a great need for dive and hazmat.”
So all parties came up with a compromise, for now. “We said, ‘Hey can you give us the opportunity to look at the way we do our training and modify it to save some overtime and not cut the team until you absolutely have to?’” he said. “And that’s what our chiefs are doing now. They are pretty supportive of us.”
The firefighters are also looking at vehicle costs as a way to save money. “We were in a refurbished ambulance for our dive truck,” Rishling said, “but we grossly outgrew it and asked for a cargo trailer to augment it.”
The dive team got the money for the trailer, but did not spend it because shortly thereafter the department’s hazmat team found itself with an older squad it didn’t need anymore. “We said, ‘We’ll take that instead,’” he said. “We saved some money for the city, added some graphics, and that was pretty much it.”
At Randolph, Vt.-based Firetec, used fire apparatus is all in a day’s work. The company acts as a go-between for departments buying and selling used vehicles. Spokeswoman Barbara Baumann said Firetec occasionally gets calls from dive teams looking for used rescue vehicles.
Combine And Conquer
“In those instances, we are able to match them with a good used walk-in rescue with heat and ample seating for the crew,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have not seen too many specialized units hit our market… hopefully the dive and ice rescue teams which do have surplus vehicles are not trading them in when they could be getting fair market value by reselling.”
In the world of new dive vehicles, the watchword seems to be “combine and conquer.” In Nesquehoning, Pa., KME Fire Apparatus makes custom dive trucks to order. But Product Manager Andrew Yenser said that oftentimes the trucks do double or triple duty.
“The fire departments use the trucks as combination units, hazmat with dive, for example,” he said. “It’s just more logical, the economics of it all. Just to use the truck fully for one purpose doesn’t hold a whole lot of economic value.”
Yenser said the money-matters mindset is not limited to smaller departments; KME recently finished up a dive truck for the City of Boston that included other non-dive rescue capabilities.
Michael McCarthy is director of Applied Rescue Technique in Sandy Hook, Conn. He’s a rescue trainer for dive, ice, water and other technical rescue skills. He’s also somewhat of an inventor, having created a surface ice rescue sling and an inflatable rescue tube that he currently markets through Westborough, Mass.-based Hawill’s Ltd. His aim is to create products that work for several different rescue applications, as multi-tasking is more marketable in today’s economy.
Training Is Down
“Dive team training, water rescue training and purchases [on the East Coast] seem to be down a bit,” McCarthy said. “It’s hard to justify to the [department] trustees, and if you get any town money, it’s tough to justify it to them too.”
But he also cautioned that cheaping out on dive and ice rescue is short-sighted. “I tell people that they can set up a rescue squad to do surface ice rescue, with two ice rescue suits, two ropes, four [personal floatation devices] and a couple sundry items, for basically the same price as one set of turnout gear.”
Like Rishling, McCarthy said a little compromise goes a long way. “In this economy you’ve got to go for what you need, not what would be great,” he said. “Like everything else, you put a little extra in the budget, so if you have to cut something you can cut something that’s not really essential.”
Lake Assault Custom Boats in Elk River, Minn., sees customers looking for multi-tasking craft, like its Landing Craft model. “It’s a multi-purpose boat, you don’t just have a dive boat or a fire boat,” President Jerry Atherton said. He makes all of his boats to order, with welded aluminum frames.
“Compared to an inflatable, they are bigger and more durable, but price-wise there’s not much difference,” he said. “It’s got dive boards… and we have the variety of sizes. It handles bigger water better.”
Atherton said it’s more expensive to have your own boat, but there are benefits. “They are all custom-built, whatever they are going to use the boat for,” he said. “We design the boat around those criteria.”