Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee wants Marion County to spend around $50,000 to improve water rescue capabilities.
His plan involves buying two specialized water rescue boats, two boat motors, and a boat trailer, and establishing a properly trained water rescue team that would respond across the county.
“We’re looking at $51,964,” Steketee said.
He presented a letter written by EMS responder Rusty Moss.
“Rusty is the driving force behind getting these boats,” Steketee said. “I’m backing him.”
Moss’s letter encompassed why Hillsboro Fire Department wants the county to purchase the boats.
In it, Moss wrote, “The reservoir has had several near drownings and numerous mishaps in the last couple years, which leads to a concern of the safety of the largest tourist attraction in Marion County —not to mention several other near miss incidents that occurred throughout the county in high-water incidents.”
Hillsboro has two special water rescue suits for rescuers.
Moss and Hillsboro firefighter Matt Hein have trained in flood and swift water rescue with the University of Kansas and Emporia Fire Department.
Moss also received training in ice rescues, and boat safety and rescue operations with Mission Township in Topeka.
“They are very proficient at water rescue,” Steketee said.
Moss wrote that Hillsboro has 90 percent of the reservoir in its rescue boundaries.
Kevin McCoy, assistant lake manager at Marion Reservoir, said the Army Corps of Engineers has one boat that is primarily used for patrol, boater assistance, and rescue as needed.
“The reservoir is a big body of water,” he said. “Looking for people out there is like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes. It helps having an extra boat in the water.”
The corps responds only to the reservoir not the entire county, Steketee said.
Other firefighters are interested in training, Moss said, and a designated team with equipment available at all times needs to be established because of the limited time involved in water rescues.
“The team would consist of any firefighter or individual interested in being part of the team,” Moss wrote. “Requirements will be set and monitored to remain as a member.”
Steketee said Emporia and other surrounding communities used boats of similar “zero entry” design.
“When a guy went off the road in a semi into water on Kansa (Rd.) last month, it really shined a light on that we need new equipment,” Steketee said. “The boats can be linked together for a large area search or if there is a big flood situation. We’re willing to take on the responsibility for training, housing, and taking care of the boats.”
Commissioners entertained the idea of purchasing the boats but made no formal decision on the matter.
“There is a fund with $24,000 in it for equipment,” Commissioner Randy Dallke said. “It seems to me like this is a logical source for this money, but if we buy the boat, it would have to be available wherever.”
“I’m basically here to make sure this gets to the fire chiefs association before commissioners approve the money,” onlooker Mathew Harris, assistant chief of Goessel Fire Department, said. “This needs to be discussed between the rescue departments before they use all our money.”
Before the meeting, Steketee had said he was nervous about suggesting the purchase before discussing it with other county fire chiefs.
“I’m ram-rodding this, but it’s for everybody’s uses,” Steketee said. “Maybe the cost could be taken from Hillsboro Fire Department’s budget overtime.”
Dallke added that maybe a small portion of county money could be used for the project overtime.
Commissioner Dan Holub said he was surprised at how many water incidents there had been.
“That money was put aside to replace batteries, upgrade stuff, and things like that,” Holub said. “I’d just as soon not raid that pot.”
With the state imposing a property tax lid, he said spending money from special funds was a “big temptation.”
“The cities and counties are screwed,” Holub said. “That’s the way it is. I’m not going to question the validity of this project, but it’s there for a purpose, and I want to keep my eye on that.”
Upgrading radios also was brought up as another issue that might need to be addressed with county money.