Macon-Bibb gets new fire rescue boats with GEMA grant

The Macon-Bibb County Fire Department took its new rescue boats for a test spin Monday afternoon on Lake Tobesofkee.

A $53,000 GEMA grant paid for two 14-foot, inflatable vessels with 25 horsepower engines, trailers and a pickup for hauling them, Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said.

“We’re excited to have them here, because we think with these smaller, lighter-weight water crafts, we’ll be able to navigate through our waterways in and around Bibb County and in surrounding areas,” Riggins said. “They’re a little bit easier to navigate with, lighter to maneuver around with, so they should help us out significantly when we’re out doing a water rescue emergency.”

The majority of local water rescues occur on the Ocmulgee River, where low water levels and difficult terrain have crippled efforts in the primary rescue boat.

“Our primary rescue boat sort of is a little arduous to navigate through, and some of the levels it has to navigate over, it becomes a little cumbersome for them,” he said. “We’ve found ourselves having to stop and get other devices that can help us to mitigate the water.”

Often rescue crews have to pick up the boat to navigate around fallen trees or other obstacles.

“These are not that heavy, so they’re real good for the river. They don’t run low,” said Capt. Tim Johnson, a member of the department’s dive team.

The lighter-weight boats also can be dropped in the river nearly anywhere, not just at established boat ramps.

More than four dozen members of the water rescue team are scattered among the county fire stations.

Some of them began training with the boats Monday afternoon after a briefing from One Boat company representatives.

Heath Birdsong, vice president of sales, said his best advertising comes from word of mouth.

Riggins said they applied for the grant after similar boats were put in action in Middle Georgia.

“There’s a twin set in Jones County,” he said.

Jones County Fire Chief Don Graham said their boats have already been used on three rescues in about three and a half years.

“They’ve been quite effective,” Graham said.

The two departments plan to train together, Graham said.

“I think we’ll be more effective,” he said, especially on the Ocmulgee. “We can drop down from River North and they can come up from Macon.”

The addition doubles Macon-Bibb’s fleet of rescue boats.

The newest boats, which remain inflated, will be housed temporarily at Fire Station No. 109 near Bass Road until the boat house can be expanded at Fire Station No.1 on Coliseum Drive, where the dive team equipment and other boats are headquartered, Riggins said.

Sgt. Damon Lawson of the dive team was the first to use the foot pedal to make sure the boats were at the proper inflation and the first to crank the motor once it was primed.

“A huge asset, definitely,” Lawson said while out on the water. “We can have more than one boat in the water, especially when we’re searching an area.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.