Fulton County Search and Rescue Boat -- still on dry land

Wednesday, September 4, 2013
The Fulton County Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Boat, purchased last year after a successful $16,000 fund drive, was shown off last October in Arkansas Living Magazine, but remains in a Baxter County storage unit, and has yet to be used.

On Saturday, Aug. 10, flash flood warnings were out in Fulton County after days of heavy rain, and the Fulton County Sheriff's Department received a report that a truck and trailer attempting to cross a ford had been swept into the South Fork River which was running swiftly and out of its banks in many places. Thankfully, no one was hurt and a water rescue was not needed.

If there had been a need for a rescue or a search for a missing person, a neighboring law enforcement agency would have to have been called because, while the community raised more than $16,000 last summer for a Fulton County Search and Rescue Boat, the boat has never been put in service. In fact, it is not even in Fulton County.

"We've tested it, and it is in storage at Henderson. We don't have anywhere to put it," Sheriff Buck Foley told The News.

According to the Sheriff, he hopes to build a pole barn type garage at the rear of the new Fulton County Jail, creating space to house the rescue boat, and maintain Sheriff's Department vehicles. "I want to get it built before the jail opens. We've got salvage materials stored and all we would need is to hire a couple of carpenters."

County Judge Jim Bicker does not seem optimistic about that. He told quorum court last month that the county is going to have to find "a little money," additional funds to furnish the jail and pay for some items that are not in the construction budget. Where that money is going to come from, considering the county's always tight budget, is still not clear.

The need for a rescue boat and trained crew to run it became apparent in April of 2012 when a three year old boy went missing while his family worked during a clean up day at the Camp Kia Kima Boy Scout Camp in eastern Fulton County. Because the county did not have a rescue boat, it had to rely on other sheriffs departments and volunteers to help in the four day search which ended with the recovery of the boy's body.

"We needed to get into that river immediately, but we had no rescue boat or crews trained in swift water rescue. The county doesn't own a life jacket or a paddle. We had to wait for help from other counties who had river rescue equipment," Sheriff Foley told The News in May of 2012, as a fundraising campaign was launched to try to solve an urgent community problem.

Jerry Estes of North Arkansas Electric and Jason Miller of FNBC established a bank account and began contacting businesses, organizations and individuals to contribute. "It is apparent this [rescue boat] is a great need that will have many uses for the Sheriff's Department," Miller said in an e-mail seeking contributions.

The Viola Fire Department, which contributed $1,000, and the Gepp Fire Department, which contributed $1,500, were among the early supporters of the rescue boat drive. More than $3,000 was raised at a Homecoming Festival event that sold barbeque dinners, and former State Representative Lori Benedict allocated $3,000 from her General Improvement Fund. On June 29, CenturyLink's $500 donation help the drive top its goal -- raising $15,000 in just two months. In all, $16,550 was collected.

"I expected it was in use by now," Benedict said when informed the search and rescue boat had never been put into use. Others who made contributions also expressed surprise when told the county's fully equipped rescue boat is sitting in a Baxter County boat storage unit.

According to the sheriff, four deputies have volunteered to be trained as divers, and he hopes to get a dive team together soon. "We have some air tanks, and are going to test them in the [Salem] pool, and send them to school to get certified [as divers]," Foley said.

Foley had asked last year that some county firefighters also get training in swift water rescue to be able to assist his department in emergencies. Salem Fire Chief Nick Blanton said a swift water rescue school is being worked up to be offered to firefighters throughout the area. "Our department is wanting to get some training because of the boat so we can be of help if needed, especially providing responders if there are injuries."

Fulton County residents who read the October 2012 edition of Arkansas Living, the magazine published by Arkansas electric co-ops, are the only ones who have ever seen the rescue boat. It was shown in a photo accompanying an article which praised J and J Water Sports of Henderson and Mountain Home Basscat for helping obtain the boat and its motor at discount prices. The article described the rescue boat as an aluminum tunnel hull boat, which can run in as little as four inches of water and is powered with a jet motor that operates without a prop sticking down in the water -- making it perfect for use in the South Fork and Spring Rivers. It has been outfitted with emergency lights, a special pad on the bow for a cadaver dog and communications equipment.

The article also listed businesses, organizations and individuals who supported the fundraising campaign to allow the boat to be purchased and outfitted.

Sheriff Foley was quoted in the article as saying, "I'm extremely proud of all the volunteers -- those who have donated time and money to get us to this point and to those who have helped us secure a top notch search and rescue boat. This is something we can all be proud of..."

In the recent interview, the Sheriff said he might bring the rescue boat to Salem to allow people to see it, and to take a photograph with those who contributed to the boat fund. However, exactly when the boat will be available for use is still not clear.

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