No longer ‘helpless’: Smith Lake area fire departments prepare to launch second fire/rescue boat, more on the way

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With three pontoons and a 225-horsepower engine, the boat about to become Marine Two can carry heavy loads and move fast. (Photo courtesy of Toby Bates)

CULLMAN, Ala. – At one time, firefighters and EMTs around Smith Lake faced a formidable barrier to responding to emergency calls: the shoreline. Having to stand on the bank, begging for a loaner boat to respond to incidents on the water, was a feeling Logan Fire Chief Toby Bates called “helpless.”

Less than a month ago, that time came to an end as the fire departments of Logan, Good Hope, Trimble, Dodge City, Crane Hill and Loretto launched Marine One, a converted recreational pontoon boat, on Smith Lake. The boat hit the water July 4 and saw its first act of service that same evening, joining the search for Kelsey Starling, the boater who was reported missing after a two-boat wreck near Crane Hill.

Loretto Chief Gaither Mills told The Tribune his department made its own effort to outfit a fire boat years ago, but the unilateral effort failed when the boat they acquired needed more work than they could do.

But, according to Mills, “Since we’ve all joined hands together, it’s working.”

Marine One has a 70-horsepower engine, 585 gallon-per-minute pump donated by Loretto Volunteer Fire Department, lights and sirens. The two-pontoon rig will get a third pontoon at some point, because it rides low in the water with so much equipment on board. The boat is currently based at Smith Lake Marina.

Marine Two

Now Bates, who has spearheaded the recent effort to put emergency response boats on the lake, is getting ready to launch Marine Two, a purpose-built three-pontoon “tritoon” fire boat, purchased from a fire department in Idaho. 

Bates said, “A fire department up there had a company build it as a fire boat. It’s got a cabin and all that stuff on it; we’ll probably put a good sonar on it and all that good stuff. It’ll flow 685 (gallons per minute)- I think that’s what it’ll flow- and it’s a big boat. It’s got a 225 (horsepower) Yamaha on it, so it’ll get up and go a little bit faster than the other one. The other boat’s only got a 70 on it, so it’s not that big, but it’ll get the job done for close stuff. When we need to get on down the lake, we’re going to need a bigger boat with a bigger motor, and that’s where the bigger pontoon will come into effect until, at a later date, when we can get a true fire boat on Smith Lake.”

Marine Two will be housed for now at Trident Marina by Big Bridge. 

And the story doesn’t stop there. On Tuesday, Bates announced the acquisition of a third boat.

Marine Three

Said Bates, “We bought a boat yesterday- it’ll be Logan Fire and Rescue, but we’re going to utilize it as a third boat for Cullman County Fire and Rescue. It’ll be utilized with the other two boats that we have set up for fire and rescue, and this boat here will be more of a rescue type boat, once we get it in the water and stuff. We’ll get some good sonars and stuff on it. We can use it for sonaring or dives, or whatever might need to be done in the county. This boat won’t necessarily be for firefighting; it’ll just be for getting responders to an area in a fast response time.”

Bates described the new vessel: “It’s a Key West boat. It’s a center console boat; it’s sort of like the sheriff’s department’s boat- the center console boat they’ve got. It’s 22-foot long. It’s already ready to go. I’ve just got to put some LED lights on it for emergency lights, and a radio and a siren, and it’ll be ready to go in the water. We’re going to try to keep it at Smith Lake Marina. That way, if there’s a boat wreck or any kind of incident happens on the lake, we can get responders to get to that boat, and then we can get that boat to the emergency call pretty quick, because that boat’ll run in the high 50s, close to 60 miles an hour, so we’ll be able to get there pretty quick.” 

Bates hopes to have multiple berths around the lake, so the boats can be placed close to where they might most often be needed. The fire departments are currently seeking anyone willing to allow the use of a conveniently accessible slip or boathouse on the water, where the departments can store a boat.

Marine Four?

Bates also hopes to get a fourth boat eventually, telling The Tribune, “I think we determined we need about four boats on Smith Lake, to cover the whole lake, because it’s a big lake. Once we get that fourth boat, we can kind of scatter them out, and each boat with have its own little zone to work or whatever.”

Now, only a few months since he started this boat project, Bates and the other chiefs have a boat on the water, a second that should be ready by this weekend, a third on deck and plans for a fourth. That’s pretty good, considering their original hope was to be able to purchase one boat per year over a four-year period.

Said Bates, “We’re a lot further along than what we were two months ago, when we didn’t have a boat at all. This has moved along pretty quick, and it’s just been one of those things that, you know, the faster we go, the faster it’ll work out.”

Bates talked about the need for response boats on Smith Lake: “The boat idea’s been kicked around for several years. I’ve been beating this bush for the past two or three years about trying to get a boat, and everybody sort of looked at me and laughed, and thought, ‘Well, we can’t get boats because we can’t afford them.’ Boats are expensive and they’re a lot to maintain, but we’ve been overlooking Smith Lake for a long time. It’s all in our coverage areas.

“We’ve got seven departments that cover Smith Lake. If an accident happens on Smith Lake, the fire departments are the first people they call, not anybody else. When they call for an accident on Smith Lake, without boats and without a way to get out there, we’re helpless. You know, when somebody’s needing emergency assistance, and they call 911 and they dispatch the fire department, and the fire department goes to the bank and stands on the bank because they can’t do anything, it’s a helpless feeling.

“We’ve had calls before to where we’ve had to stand on the bank for over two hours just to find a boat to get to a wreck scene, and that’s just, in my opinion, that’s not the way we need to do things. We have the resources that we can try to get the money and try to do what we can to get places to get out on the water. So that’s what we end up doing, is put our money together and get boats on the lake. That’s the right thing to do.”

Dodgeball tournament to benefit fire boat project

Lifelines 4 Thin Lines (L4TL), an organization which works to support the well-being of emergency responders and their families, will sponsor a dodgeball tournament in the Hanceville High School gym Saturday, Aug. 10 at 9:30 a.m.  The proceeds from the event will be split between the group’s general fund and Cullman County Fire and Rescue’s fire boat project.

Teams of five or six, or individual players, can register for the event through L4TL’s event page on Facebook.  The deadline for registration and payment is this Saturday, Aug. 3.  For more information or to register, visit www.facebook.com/events/199256774335472/.

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Cullman County Fire and Rescue’s new fast response boat, currently awaiting outfitting, will carry personnel to accident scenes at more than 50 miles per hour. (Photo courtesy of Toby Bates)
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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com