Emergency Response Boats: What to Know Before You Buy

Marine units allow coastal emergency responders to extend their services to the water. Here’s what they look for when adding boats to their fleets.

November 2017, Government Fleet - Feature

by Shelley Ernst - Also by this author

The Collier County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office has found that standardizing boat engines with those of on-road vehicles makes maintenance easier. Photo courtesy of Collier County Sheriff
The Collier County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office has found that standardizing boat engines with those of on-road vehicles makes maintenance easier. Photo courtesy of Collier County Sheriff

Emergency responders located in coastal areas know emergencies aren’t contained to land. Take Nicholas DiGiacomo, operator, Fireboat 73 Marine Service Bureau, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue in Florida, for instance. Early one morning in 2008, he was called to a yacht fire at the Miami Beach marina. A young couple was trapped inside, separated from the flames by only a narrow door. If it weren’t for DiGiacomo’s emergency response boat, the couple would have surely perished. But, thanks to the crew’s efforts, the couple was saved — and just 10 minutes before the boat sank.

With life and death situations a part of their normal protocol, marine units make up a very important part of coastal fleets. DiGiacomo, whose marine unit is comprised of 27 vessels, and Collier County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office’s Sgt. David Bruening, whose unit is comprised of 10 vessels, share what they’ve learned about finding the units that will serve them best.

Emergency Boat Needs Differ From Civilian Boat Needs

At a Glance

Take these steps when purchasing a police boat:

  • Don’t think like a civilian
  • Consider a custom-built boat
  • Try to use the same types of engines as on-road vehicles
  • Talk to operators about their needs.

First things first: Buying a boat intended for emergency response isn’t the same as buying one for recreational purposes. Buyers of emergency response boats must focus on performance and making room for all the gear needed to do their jobs.

“As opposed to civilian boats, craft paneling should be avoided. The U.S. Coast Guard uses open architecture and unobstructed raceways for wiring that make troubleshooting much easier,” DiGiacomo advised. “Paneling and trim may look nice, but they can hide leaks and mask corrosion issues. Minimal insulation and sound damping materials make cutting new access ports, welding, or mounting new hardware much easier. And we emergency responders love our special gear and equipment. Panels and trim hide huge amounts of dead space that can often be utilized for squirreling away a particular tool or supply.”

Bruening said adding only the necessary features that help get the job done should be the focus and will help to manage costs, too. “Boats are expensive and have unlimited options,” he explained. “We often strip off options due to our boats being used strictly as tools for public safety and not family cruising or fishing.”

Build to Specs

While a standard model may work well for civilian use, emergency response boats have very specialized uses, so they need to be built accordingly.

“Find a manufacturer that will build your boat for you,” Bruening ­recommended. “The boats we have had issues with in the past have been boats that were bought off the lot. These boats are made for the recreational boater who may put 100 hours a year on a boat. As a law enforcement agency, we are putting 10 to 15 times that on our boats.”

For starters, DiGiacomo recommended looking for a model that offers ease of maintenance, durability, and an open platform that allows for in-house customization. From there, Bruening said it’s important to match the task to the requirement, and find ways to meet those specific needs. “Don’t look at what the military or other agencies are buying,” he said. “Define what you need, and then find the vessel that will fulfill that need.”

Emergency rescue boats aren’t like recreational boats — they usually have minimal insulation, minimal optional features, and can be designed specifically for the agency. Pictured is a Miami-Dade (Fla.) boat. Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue
Emergency rescue boats aren’t like recreational boats — they usually have minimal insulation, minimal optional features, and can be designed specifically for the agency. Pictured is a Miami-Dade (Fla.) boat. Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue

Seek User Input

Properly spec’ing a boat to ensure performance includes seeking the input of the users themselves. “Talk to the men and women out running the boats. They will give you the most honest, non-­bureaucratic answer you can ask for,” Bruening said. “The biggest challenge is setting up the boat to function the way a patrol officer needs it to function. There are things such as steering wheel placement that operators prefer, so officers should be part of the process.”

Bruening also recommended speaking with operators outside of your organization. Asking what they like and don’t like and why can help a fleet hone in on the right type of unit for their use.

“Don’t talk to the purchasing director; talk to the guy driving the boat. He will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly to help you make an informed decision,” Bruening said. 

Make Strategic Power and Electrical Choices

Making the right choices in regard to power and electrical is part and parcel to building a boat that can properly fulfill its mission.

When it comes to electrical, ­DiGiacomo said he prefers large, oversized raceways that allow room to add wiring and communication cables. “Pulling wires around blind or dead-end routes is painful,” he said. “It always helps if the manufacturer installs conduit that leaves plenty of extra room and leaves a chase line to pull new wiring through.”

When choosing how a boat is powered, DiGiacomo recommended standardizing power plants and electronics across marine units and using the same engine and parts manufacturer as the rest of the fleet.

“It’s hard to build up a good supply inventory when each of your vessels uses different parts. If you’re a fire department and the majority of your landside fleet, fire trucks, and rescues use XYZ diesel engines, then you likely have a good supply of maintenance parts,” DiGiacomo explained. “Your mechanics are certified to perform warrantee work, already own the specialty tools, and are comfortable with the troubleshooting software for that manufacturer.”

For those reasons, DiGiacomo said it’s in a fleet’s best interests to see if the vessel manufacturer uses or is willing to install the fleet’s preferred power plant in the vessel. Fortunately, DiGiacomo said many commercial diesel and some gasoline engine manufacturers maintain a maritime product line.

Don’t Forget the Details

Beyond larger considerations such as power plants and electrical, Bruening also suggested paying attention to the finer details. Some of the features his marine unit focuses on include:

  • Fiberglass hardtop, which doesn’t require the service canvas tops do and also offers easy antenna mounting
  • Thru-bolt T-top, which keeps top screws from pulling out of the deck
  • LED lighting, which consumes minimal power while offering maximum brightness
  • Dual 2,000-gallon bilge pumps, which act as a fail-safe for vessels that stay in the water
  • Five large cleats to include mid-ship, which are helpful when tying off to vessels
  • Freshwater washdown, which allows operators to rinse themselves and equipment
  • Boarding/dive ladder, which helps with getting conscious victims out of the water, and aids in boarding for dive operations
  • Dedicated starting battery for each motor and one house battery
  • Dedicated fuel water separator for each motor.

Bruening also recommended models that come with a minimum 10-year structural warranty. 

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