Fire volunteers' dream boat is a major drain

The Union Fire Company's $1 million fireboat, equipped to fight terror, has led to the resignation of two chiefs.
The Union Fire Company's $1 million fireboat, equipped to fight terror, has led to the resignation of two chiefs. (Bensalem Police Dept.)
Posted: July 30, 2012

 What's a tiny volunteer fire company in Bensalem doing with a $1 million taxpayer-funded fireboat tricked out to troll the Delaware River for blazes, bodies, terrorists, and IEDs?

Nothing, besides preening for festival crowds and crashing into objects seen and unseen.

The tale of how the dysfunctional Union Fire Company won a wad of Homeland Security money to buy a state-of-the-art terror-taming boat screams post-9/11 planning at its nuttiest.

The volunteers' bold play to dabble in regional law enforcement has soured relations with Bensalem's paid police department. Two Union chiefs have resigned as a result of boat acrimony and embarrassing accidents. And just maintaining the vessel is draining the fire company's meager resources.

Bensalem locals talk endlessly about the imposing 40-foot, 25,000-pound "Bear on the Delaware" that has been prowling all year but has yet to fight a fire or sniff out a bomb. But no one who had a hand in the grant seems upset that volunteers own a dream machine that may be the death of the company.

Union members insist they "aren't yahoos," but rather, everyday heroes risking their lives for free. Yet even the chief admits they look like showboaters on the big-boy toy.

With fewer than 30 active members - only a handful of whom even live in Bensalem - Union already "scratches," or fails to respond to, nearly a third of its emergency calls. When they make rare marine runs, it's usually to recover bodies. Until this year, the firefighters took off in a modest motorboat to guffaws at a nearby yacht club.

"They're horrible. It's like a comedy of errors when they launch," says Bill Burke, the club's former commodore. "I've seen them put a boat in without the plug in."

Although history suggests otherwise, the firefighters swear there's a genuine need on the upper Delaware for a superboat that can break through ice and pump 4,500 gallons a minute.

"The Bensalem police have an armored car," argues Dave Jerri Sr., a Union member and boat defender. "When's the last time they used it?"

The cops - who have no armored car, just a secondhand SWAT vehicle - scoff at the comparison. As Bensalem's public safety director, Fred Harran, puts it, "I didn't think the federal government would be stupid enough to give them a boat."

Smelling foul play, the police sicced the FBI on the firefighters. But the case died because the government does not regret throwing antiterrorism money at volunteers.

"No one from FEMA would say it was fraud," explains Deputy Public Safety Director Pat Ponticelli. "No one would say, 'We gave away a million we probably should have used somewhere else.' "

'Are you serious?'

So about that boat, "Firestorm 36." Since money was no object, Union chose a deluxe model. Wouldn't you?

Her belly isn't just blue, it's periwinkle. She's 40 feet long, including her dive platform. With a maximum speed of 40 knots, she's the fastest vessel of her size on the water. The San Diego Port Police ordered five just like her. Officials in San Juan, Puerto Rico, want one, too.

The beast has four remote-controlled "guns" able to fill a swimming pool in four minutes. She also shoots foam. A double-thick aluminum layer helps "Firestorm" motor through five inches of ice.

The boat came outfitted with an area to detain prisoners, a stable shooting platform and an infrared camera for night ops, even though Union members cannot fire weapons or make arrests.

And then there's side-scan sonar, a high-tech $37,000 accessory enabling the crew to scour the river floor for improvised explosive devices.

"IEDs?" cackles Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum. "Are you serious?"

Hard to fathom

Bensalem's six volunteer fire companies split roughly $1.6 million a year in public funding and 21 square miles of turf. Union, founded in 1927, occupies the Lower End, including five miles along the Delaware.

The 60,000-resident suburb has no industry or housing hugging the river's shallow, unnavigable edge, so it's hard to fathom what motivated Union to seek a $1 million jet boat. But that's what the company's former chief, Vince Troisi, asked for when a pal in port security told him the feds had money to burn in the name of protecting America's waterways from terrorists.

"Put in for it," Troisi's buddy told him as the chief fantasized aloud about his dreamboat. "What's the worst that can happen?"

Staying afloat

There's the Delaware River you know - oil refineries, cargo terminals, Penn's Landing - and then the largely recreational, but still vulnerable, region above the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. This northern stretch is home to a helicopter facility, a fuel-tank farm, and the ports in Falls Township, where ships carry steel, concrete, and waste.

Working ports are potential terrorism targets. Just because evildoers haven't struck, doesn't mean they won't, Union Chief Troisi learned from his inside connection, Kurt Ferry, a fellow volunteer from the Eddington Fire Company in Bensalem.

Ferry chairs the Area Maritime Security Committee, a group of port professionals the Coast Guard entrusts to shape security strategy along the Delaware from Wilmington to Trenton. He also runs the subcommittee that awards up to $20 million a year in federal grants.

Administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the Department of Homeland Security, the Port Security Grant Program owes its existence to 9/11 and the ensuing national panic. Since 2002, the program has doled out more than $2.5 billion.

Among the country's 361 ports, priority goes to the most vulnerable. We're one of them. Previous recipients include Marcus Hook police, the port in Paulsboro, and the Delaware River Port Authority.

Union's 2009 grant application - called an "investment justification" - sought $787,950 in federal funds for the Firestorm. Per the rules, the volunteers would pay the remaining $262,150.

Union survives on $250,000 a year in state and township taxes. So after depleting its savings to buy the boat, the company needed a $94,000 loan to stay afloat.

In the application, Union said it assisted other Bucks County and New Jersey fire departments working "emergencies on the Delaware River." With a monster fireboat, Union would offer "secondary response to the City of Philadelphia and Camden County port facilities."

Then, and now, Union had just two agreements - with fellow volunteers in Bristol and Croydon. Joe Sullivan, the Philadelphia Police Department's counterterrorism chief, says partnering with Union "is just not realistic."

"I would not call an individual fire department and say: 'I know you've got a boat. Send it to me.' "

In another bit of wishful thinking, Union spoke of "an increase in civilian and commercial traffic" on the water around Bensalem from a "proposed ferry service."

A what?

"The last ferry around here," sniffs Bensalem's deputy public safety director, Ponticelli, "was Dunk's Ferry in the 1700s."

To meet a grant requirement, Union said the pricey watercraft would be locked in a boathouse at the Pennsylvania Yacht Club even though no such deal was ever struck.

Veteran boaters like Bill Burke also puzzled over Union's promise to patrol year-round, since all but barges generally wait out the winter in dry docks.

"Some years," he notes, "the ice is so thick, even the Coast Guard has trouble getting through."

'A mistake'

The inability of volunteer companies to roust members for weekday calls led Bensalem to start a modest paid fire department a few years ago. The public safety director oversees that operation and the volunteers. Tension was inevitable and exploded at a meeting in 2009 after Union's chief allegedly boasted, "We're getting our boat, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it."

Says police veteran Ponticelli: "They have no jurisdiction in the water outside of Bensalem. That's the Coast Guard. Or the New Jersey State Police."

Adds Public Safety Director Harran: "They're nuts. I'm not saying this boat isn't needed somewhere, but someone in Washington has to realize this was a mistake."

Suspecting Union had defrauded the government by promising more than it could deliver, Ponticelli contacted port officials, FEMA, and the Department of Homeland Security, only to be stonewalled and told to mind his own business. Disgusted as both a concerned taxpayer and a cop, he made a final call: to the FBI.

A sinking feeling

When she arrived in January, the Firestorm was christened "Marine 37" for Union's station house. Her nickname: "The Bear on the Delaware."

The boat has located no weapons of mass or minor destruction. But there has been drama - caused by the firefighters themselves.

Just before midnight on Jan. 14, a guard patrolling the desolate Neshaminy State Marina called 911. The only boat docked there - "Marine 37" - was sinking.

Earlier that day, firefighters struck something while training with an employee of the Canadian manufacturer, MetalCraft Marine.

"A series of failures," explains then-chief Jerri, "led to us not noticing there was a hole in the boat."

The "Bear" took on 2,000 gallons and had to be lifted out of the water, drained, and repaired. Union paid the marina $500 for the use of a crane, but MetalCraft took the blame and ate the cost of the weeks-long repair.

On their own a month later, Union members destroyed a dock box and paid $600 for a replacement. Pulling in and out of the marina, they repeatedly damaged rub rails.

On April Fools' Day, the "Bear" struck and sank a $25,000 hydraulic lift. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission investigated but filed no charges. Union covered the $500 repair.

Later that day, "Marine 37" was evicted.

"They had a $1 million boat but didn't have anywhere to put it," notes Sean Schafer, a staffer to State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, who had previously helped the firefighters. "They wanted us to get involved again, but we didn't. It's a big boat. They were having trouble operating it. The whole thing was controversial."

Unable to find lodging in Bensalem, Union docked the "Bear" at D&S Marina, 10 miles away in Tullytown. So much for a secure berth: I walked through an unlocked gate and found the boat bobbing. I could have boarded.

Jackie Ewer, of Warrington, docks her 34-foot sportfishing boat in the same cove. She has met several firefighters, friendly fellows spending their weekends learning to park and steer their "Bear."

"When they came in yesterday, my husband covered his eyes and said, 'I'm not looking!' " she gestures. "They've got to get better at it."

Few strings

Both the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and Congress' Government Accountability Office have criticized the grant program. Foes point to both extreme spending and years when millions go unclaimed because of onerous restrictions.

A common gripe: "Funding unworthy projects."

Even worse, read a 2011 GAO report: "FEMA has not evaluated the effectiveness of this program in strengthening critical maritime infrastructure against risks associated with potential terrorist attacks because it has not implemented measures to track progress toward achieving program goals."

Translation: There's plenty of cash to be had and few strings attached.

Though it seems Union exaggerated its reach and range, no one who awarded the grant will discuss the decision citing port - and thus national - security.

I asked one of the port insiders if anyone in this tight circle checks back to see whether recipients did what they said they would do with the government's money. Her response: "Not formally."

Fireworks

As the Union member living closest to the marina, Jerri planned to be the boat's primary pilot. He drives a truck for a living. In 2008, he hit a SEPTA bus, causing injuries that led to civil settlements.

Assures Jerri: "It wasn't a big deal."

Jerri was on board when the firefighters took their "Bear" to two Fourth of July fireworks displays. One weekend this summer, they cruised a waterfront Celtic festival in Bristol. Another time, they dropped by a fireman's benefit at a riverside cafe called Maggie's.

"Everybody likes to see a fireboat pumping," he says, beaming. "We put on a show."

Jerri resembles Jesse Ventura and has a Latin tattoo that translates into "Over My Dead Body," but he seems like a reasonable guy when we met to talk at a Port Richmond Dunkin' Donuts. So I tell him that even though I know Union was asked to monitor the pyrotechnics, the other "training" sessions look like joyriding.

He agrees that perception is everything but insists Union's "enemies" in the Bensalem Police Department know the truth.

"They've been against everything we want to do to improve our service and save the taxpayers' money," Jerri says. "This boat is not a toy."

What the "Bear" is? Expensive. Union has already spent $25,000 on insurance and docking. One month of diesel fuel ran $3,500. More marine training - sorely needed - will cost $1,000 a day.

Boiling over

The 2011 FBI investigation rattled many cages but resulted in no criminal charges. The U.S. Attorney's Office can't say anything about cases that never materialized.

"There was no victim," notes the police director, Harran. "The federal government would have been the victim."

FEMA's response? "This matter was thoroughly investigated, and FEMA found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Union Fire Company."

Jerri remains so steamed, he's mulling a complaint against Bensalem police. "I contacted the FBI and Department of Justice," he says. "Fred Harran is a bully. He's abusing his authority. Where do we live, Russia?"

The bad blood boiled over at a meeting this month at the Pen Ryn Mansion after Bensalem's mayor and top cop put Union on suspension - the second time in 13 months the volunteers had been barred from fighting fires.

Harran, the public safety director, accused Union's leaders of insubordination in their dealings with him. He also cited inanity surrounding the boat. As exasperated Mayor Joe DiGirolamo put it: "We have five other fire companies that give us none of these problems."

Harran told residents that the firefighters lost their focus and overextended themselves financially to buy and care for their "Bear."

"Who," he asked snidely, "is fighting fires in Bensalem while they are on a million-dollar boat watching the fireworks in Philadelphia?"

When he could take the beating no more, Steve Carmichael stepped up to defend the gift that keeps on taking.

"Will that boat ever fight a fire on the Delaware?" asked Union's president. "I don't know. But if it saves one life, was it money well-spent? Is one life worth $1 million?"

Officials insist Union can reopen the moment it meets three conditions:

Replace the chief and president. Craft a long-term "remediation plan." And decommission "Marine 37."

The fire company's leaders resigned. Last week, their replacements pledged reforms as instructed.

As for the order to kill the "Bear"? That will be tricky. Union's boat brouhaha seems to be the first of its kind in the Port Security Grant Program's 10-year history.

Because "Marine 37" was built with federal funds, Union can't give the $1 million fireboat away. And it can't sell her on Craigslist.

"The boat is on FEMA's radar," confirms Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin McCormack, chief of contingency planning and force readiness on the Delaware. The likeliest scenario: FEMA seizes the boat, then searches for a federal, state, or local fire agency with the need and means to use her for the public good.

"But that's not something that would happen quickly," he cautions, and the firefighters could lose the $262,150 they invested in the vessel.

Union's new chief, Jim Barford, hopes the officials relent but acknowledges: "We're in unchartered waters."

His predecessor, Vince Troisi, still can't fathom how well-meaning volunteers are villains for accepting what was offered to them. To "Marine 37," he says goodbye and good riddance.

"From the day we got that boat," he gripes, "it's been nothing but a headache."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at myant@phillynews.com, 215-854-4670 or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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