TAMPA — Every day, cargo ships laden with petroleum, ammonia and other hazardous material navigate 41 miles through Tampa Bay channels to reach Port Tampa Bay.
Most of the route is considered Hillsborough County and is the responsibility of Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
Yet, the department has just one aging boat to respond to potential fires, spills, on-board injuries and other maritime mishaps.
That is set to change next year when the department takes ownership of a $715,000 CBNRE response vessel, for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive. Most of the money, $535,000, will come from a Department of Homeland Security grant with county funds making up the remainder.
"It's the duty of Fire Rescue to make sure the vessels that come in are safe from fires and any type of terrorist activity, anything that may go on in that 41 mile stretch," said John Perez, a battalion chief and the department's marine coordinator.
The department plans to have the boat built to its own specifications and will issue bids for the work before the end of this year. It will be up to 37 feet long.
The high-gadget vessel would include a mounted radiation detector, an infrared radar system, and an EMS patient compartment for providing medical treatment.
Doors located in the bow will make it easier to get injured people on board from places like Pine Key, more commonly known as Beer Can Island, Perez said.
Right now, patients have to be carried around the side of the rescue boat.
"Patient care will be a really big part of this boat," Perez said.
The new vessel will also be able to detect the presence of explosive gases. It will be equipped with a fire pump that can supply 2,250 gallons per minute to extinguish fires.
By contrast, the 10-year old boat the department relies on now has no medical treatment area and pumps only 650 gallons of water per minute. It was deemed to have reached the end of its serviceable life in March.
The new vessel is needed to reduce the vulnerability of Tampa Bay to a maritime disaster, Perez said.
Port Tampa Bay handles over 34 million tons of cargo annually in addition to cruise ships. A cross-bay ferry service between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa will also add to maritime traffic in Tampa Bay during a six-month test period.
Hillsborough County commissioners earlier this month approved the purchase of the CBNRE vessel and its $21,000 annual operating costs.
It is scheduled to be ready for service by August.
The Department of Homeland Security also issued a grant in 2015 to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for a 42-foot boat to police waters around Port Tampa Bay.
Both vessels are needed, Perez said.
"One is a law enforcement mission, the other one is a fire rescue mission," he said. "Not only can we detect and mitigate these hazardous materials but we can also transport injured patients. The Sheriff's Office cannot do that."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.