Monica Yant Kinney: Philadelphia may try to snare Bensalem's 'Bear'

The Union Fire Company's 40-foot, 25,000-pound, taxpayer-funded fireboat. The members christened the vessel "Marine 37" but call it "the Bear on the Delaware."
The Union Fire Company's 40-foot, 25,000-pound, taxpayer-funded fireboat. The members christened the vessel "Marine 37" but call it "the Bear on the Delaware." (Bensalem Police Department)
Posted: August 02, 2012

For those still snickering from Sunday's saga about suburban volunteer firefighters who crashed their $1 million boat, I apologize. I never meant for anyone to spit coffee onto their paper or iPad screens.

If you're just tuning in, Bensalem's tiny Union Fire Company - whose 30 active members often fail to respond to routine calls - somehow won a 40-foot, 25,000-pound taxpayer-funded boat intended to douse flames and fight terror. The members christened her "Marine 37," but call her "the Bear on the Delaware."

The firefighters bought the boat with funding from a federal port-security grant program that has lavished $2.5 billion on protectors of the nation's waterways since 9/11. Humiliating accidents and high costs for upkeep have, in just seven months, made Union's gift seem like a curse. Last month, Bensalem's exasperated mayor suspended the troubled fire company and ordered the firefighters to refocus.

"That boat," says Public Safety Director Fred Harran, "has got to go."

The beauty has suitors galore in Philadelphia, but she's at the moment grounded, bobbing the days away at a Tullytown marina.

Whether "the Bear" ever sniffs out a bomb depends on the same federal bureaucrats who gave her to the overwhelmed volunteers. If you're wondering how fast the feds will move to correct their $1 million mistake, try translating this statement I received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

"FEMA will work with Bensalem Township officials to gather more information, review and discuss options, and reach a resolution regarding the fireboat purchased by a FY08 Port Security Grant. At this time, no resolution has been reached. However, all decisions will be governed by applicable laws and regulations - particularly 44 USC ยง13.32 - which address the disposition of equipment purchased with federal grant funds."

Destination: Philadelphia?

Like many readers, City Councilman Jim Kenney got to the end of the story and immediately started plotting how Bensalem could be relieved of its burden. He thinks the Bear would be "perfect" to prowl the Schuylkill.

"Maybe," he says, "we could take it off their hands."

Unbeknownst to him, Deputy Managing Director for Emergency Management Samantha Phillips has already made a move. She tells me, "I've had some conversations."

The boat's size, speed, and crime-fighting capabilities make it an ideal "mixed-use" asset. Unlike the beleaguered volunteers, Philadelphia's cross-trained police and firefighters are poised to prevent (and respond to) disasters from Delaware to Trenton.

"If it makes sense for the city and region," Phillips assures, "we can be the home for this boat."

But, I ask, isn't the Fire Department already in line to get a similar, but pricier, 40-footer from the same federal grant program? "If this becomes a reality," she says, "we can hold off that purchase."

Out of sight and mind?

Bensalem officials are to meet Wednesday with Union's new leadership about if, and how, the fire company can restore its reputation and recover from its missteps. At the top of the agenda: Killing the Bear.

"This boat will bankrupt them in three to five years," Harran contends. "They miscalculated expenses. Kind of like people who bought houses they couldn't afford."

Previously defiant Union members seem aware that their fate rests on playing nice and sacrificing their prize.

"I can't do anything," explains Chief Jim Barford, "until the township tells me what they want me to do with the boat."

And yet, it's possible Union may never rebound.

When I ask Harran about the impact of Union's abrupt closure, he tells me that two other fire companies - including one a mere half-mile away - have ably responded to all nine calls over three weeks.

"There's been no impact, zero," Harran says. "As a matter of fact, people have gotten better service."


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

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