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EMS Grants News and Articles
Date last updated: Sunday, September 9, 12:01 PST
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Pa. volunteer fire dept. back in business, but must dock $1M boat
By Monica Yant Kinney
The Philadelphia Inquirer
BENSALEM, Pa. — Good news for residents in Bensalem's Lower End: The Union Fire Company is back in business after being punished for moonlighting as terror-hunters.
The troubled volunteer outfit still suffers from a shortage of members who live close enough to actually respond to emergencies. But the firefighters are focused on recruiting and training.
And, at least for the moment, they seem to have made nice with their chief critic: Bensalem Public Safety Director Fred Harran, who shut them down. He was horrified when Union won a federal antiterror grant to buy a $1 million fireboat used so far only for joyriding on the Delaware River and "exercises" that resulted in embarrassing crashes and damage.
To reopen, Union is giving up the boat acquired from a $2.5 billion Federal Emergency Management Agency grant program.
This fire company winning that boat represents one of the more outlandish chapters in homeland security. It spawned an FBI investigation, two columns, and passionate response from readers upset at how the government misspends their money. I wish I could say it's over, but it's not. Not yet.
Kind of like 'Miami Vice'
Harran issued a brief notice Friday morning announcing Union's release from a two-month purgatory — its second contentious suspension in as many years.
("This is the last time," Harran insists when I ask whether residents should anticipate more drama. "If we ever close them again, that will be that.")
The fire company sacked its combative leadership, as Harran ordered. The replacements agreed to an undisclosed remediation plan and a four-month probation.
Most important? "The vessel known as Marine 37," Harran declared in the release, "is being returned to FEMA for disposition."
("We're not putting it on a trailer and driving it to Washington," he adds, lest anyone think more taxpayer money is being wasted.)
Marine 37, dubbed "The Bear on the Delaware" by her admirers, is the 40-foot, 25,000-pound dream machine that Union hoped would turn ambitious volunteers into power players in regional fire protection, law enforcement, and emergency management.
Think Miami Vice. Only on the Delaware, minus the white suits.
This jet boat can chase evildoers at 40 miles an hour and pump 4,500 gallons of water a minute. It came with $37,000 side scan sonar allowing firefighters to troll the river for bodies, debris, and IEDs. But, the pricey add-on was never used. It's still in the box.
Had that sonar been operational, perhaps Union members would not have caused so many accidents that they were evicted from the Neshaminy State Marina and investigated by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
FEMA return policy
Foisting a $1 million boat back at the government to re-gift is nothing like returning a Christmas sweater your Grandma bought at Boscov's. It's unprecedented. And, surprisingly difficult.
Harran says Union's leaders are writing FEMA admitting what readers already surmised: that volunteer firefighters should leave the terror-hunting to the pros.
"FEMA is going to accept the fact that [Union] can't maintain this boat," he explains, "and find a home for it in this port area."
That's news to a FEMA spokesman, who bristled when I press for specifics on when the "Bear" will set sail and who will take the wheel.
"We have nothing else to say on the matter. It's truly a local issue."
Hours later, the spokesman e-mailed a statement that FEMA put its fact-finding results in a Sept. 4 letter and "the grant recipient's proposed corrective actions are due to FEMA within 45 days."
So, best I can tell, federal homeland security experts want volunteer firefighters to decide what to do with a $1 million boat they never should have had in the first place.
The firefighting vessel, meanwhile, remains moored in a Bucks County marina. Pray for quiet on the waterfront, since thanks to this government-imposed limbo, the "Bear" can't go anywhere.
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