City Council to consider buying emergency boat

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UPDATE, Wednesday: Berkeley City Council approved the proposal at its meeting Tuesday.

Berkeley City Council will review a proposal on Tuesday to buy a public safety response boat that will be jointly operated by the city’s police and fire departments.

The boat, which will cost an estimated $920,000, would bolster local authorities’ ability to handle an array of emergencies at the Berkeley Marina. If accepted, $690,000 would come from a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, and the remaining $230,000 would be paid for by local matching funds.

Unlike the harbor patrol boat that police currently use, which is available only when the marina is open, the public safety response boat will be available to authorities 24 hours a day.

“A service boat would be really helpful,” said Stephanie Evans, a co-commodore of Cal Sailing Club. “We’ve experienced some of the most punishing conditions in the Bay Area. Having a powerful rescue boat is crucial because you have 6-foot swells and winds that are going up to 30 miles an hour.”

As maritime activity continues to increase in Berkeley, so does risk of emergency, Evans said. Cal Sailing Club hit a record high of 1,200 members last summer, indicating growing interest in the community.

The proposal also says that the boat would reduce local authorities’ dependence on the U.S. Coast Guard, which is often unable to respond quickly, if at all, to calls for assistance in the 52 acres of water within Berkeley’s city limits.

According to interim fire chief Gil Dong, the station received 18 emergency calls in 2012. Dong recalls two incidents from the past year in which the lack of an available boat hampered response time, including one in which a ship was rapidly taking on water.

“The Coast Guard did not have boats available,” Dong said. “We happened to have a neighboring vessel come along and assist. So we want a boat with dewatering abilities, so we could remove water and tow other boats in distress.”

Cal Sailing Club is largely self-sufficient and is governed by safety protocols and tests designed to minimize risk. But although area sailors are sometimes quicker to respond to emergencies than authorities, strong wind and waves often restrict the area in which smaller boats can be of help.

“If we see something or if Cal Adventures sees something, we’ll go out and help with anything we can,” Evans said. “We primarily operate in the south sailing basin. But once you go out into the pier, the waves are too big for our service boats.”

In addition to search and rescue, criminal investigation and hazardous response functions, the boat can also help local authorities respond more safely to fires on boats or in buildings along the shore.

If the City Council opts to apply for the grant in its meeting on Tuesday, the grant will be subject to review by FEMA’s Port Security Grant Program.

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected].