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San Juan Island Fire District kept mum on damage to Sheriff's boat Sentinel

What do you do if someone borrows something of yours, damages it, and returns it without telling you that something happened?  Faced with that situation yet again, Sheriff Ron Krebs told San Juan Island Fire District #3 Chief Norvin Collins that the Sentinel would no longer be available to the fire department except in actual emergencies. 

The Sentinel, the boat purchased by the county with a $758,000 Homeland Security Grant and shared with San Juan Fire District #3, has had more than $50,000 of repairs in the past few years due to improper operation of the boat. Damaged props, skags, outdrives out of alignment are just a bit of the damage. 

In a letter to the District #3 Fire Commission, Sheriff Krebs wrote "Starting around the summer of 2019 we began to see significant issues with the operation of the Sentinel in the form of damage being done to the hull and the outdrives. What started out as damage done to the light housings and the front rubber guard on the hull progressed into outdrive and propeller damage. This is an emergency first responder vessel and I recognize things happen. Damage will occur from time to time, however, the damage we are seeing is mostly preventable."

The most egregious incident occurred at the end of May. San Juan Island Fire and Rescue Dept took the Sentinel out for a training session. The department was burning up a donated structure and used the Sentinel to pump water from the Salish Sea to the firefighters. 

Sentinel at structure fire training. Photo from SJIF&R Facebook page

A report from Deputy Ray Harvey to Undersheriff Zac Reimer details what occurred.

"On June 28, 2021 I spoke with Deb Fritz from Tow Boats US regarding an unrelated matter. While speaking with Fritz, she brought up the incident in which Tow Boats responded to a call from San Juan Fire when they had grounded the county Sheriff Vessel Sentinel.

"Fritz advised me that she responded to North Bay at the request of San Juan Fire. Upon arrival, she spoke with Austin Foster, who was on board the boat. It sounded as though Foster may have been operating the boat at the time. Fritz stated that the bay is very shallow and has a very rocky bottom and a gradual slope. She stated she learned from them that they were conducting a fire drill, in which they were pumping the water to the monitors utilizing the fire pump. She said that she was told their fire pump engine and monitors quit working first. She believed this was most likely due to the silt they were sucking up into the pumps cooling system. She said they had the drive motors running as well and both motors ended up overheating, causing the vessel to shut down.

"Fritz stated when she first got the call, Foster believed they had a fire onboard the boat, as smoke was coming from the port engine compartment. It was later determined through Fritz inspection, and observations I had made when pulling the boat from the water that the engine had overheated, and the coolant had boiled out the cap. There appeared to be gallons of coolant in the bilge on the port side, and some coolant in the bilge on the starboard side of the vessel.

"Fritz stated the vessel was not operational and San Juan Fire requested they be towed to Jensen’s Marina for repair. Sometime during the tow, they were able to get the drive motors operational. Instead of taking the vessel to Jensen’s, they opted to take the vessel back to the slip without notifying the Sheriff Office of the incident that took place. They did notify us that the port engine had overheated."

In his letter to the District #3 Fire Commissioners, Sheriff Krebs wrote: During the entire 45-minute conversation with Chief Collins or AC Monin on June 3, at no time did either of them say the boat was grounded, overheated, or had any problems or issues. This was extremely deceptive and shows a lack of respect for the Sheriff’s Office and the personnel who operate the boat.

When asked about the letter and the overheating incident, Chief Collins said Krebs exaggerates and the Sentinel's problems are caused by lack of proper maintenance. 

Sheriff Krebs says the maintenance has been done properly. 

After receiving the letter, Chief Collins leased a 23-foot, trailerable fast response boat for fire and rescue marine response from Safe Boat International of Bremerton, WA. It doesn't have firefighting equipment but he said the firefighters will use portable pumps and will haul hoses onto the boat. According to Collins, the department will be drawing up specs for a new boat before going out for bids. 

Meanwhile the Sheriff's Office is looking for a new boat that is a better fit to their needs.

The Sentinel with its built in fire fighting equipment will be sold.    


Editor's note: Posted below are the letter from Sheriff Krebs to Fire District #3 Commission and the report from Deputy Ray Harvey to Undersheriff Zac Reimer.  


07/07/2021

To: Commissioners of the San Juan County Fire District #3

Re: Sheriff’s boat Sentinel

Dear Commissioners,

I am writing this letter to provide notice to you that San Juan County Fire District #3 will no longer have access to the Sheriff’s boat Sentinel. It is unfortunate that I feel I must write this letter, however, there are issues with operations, safety of the vessel and the crews, as well as communication between your command staff and the Sheriff’s Office that simply cannot be ignored. I, along with Undersheriff Reimer, have attempted on numerous occasions to work with San Juan Fire in regard to the safe operation of the Sentinel with little or no success.

Background

On August 24, 2012 the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office was awarded a Port Security Grant for a patrol/response vessel for Homeland Security missions. This grant was applied for to replace an aging Sheriff’s Office patrol boat. A grant for $785,000 was awarded to the Sheriff’s Office (see attached grant award). In June of 2014 the Sentinel was delivered to the Port of Friday Harbor where it sat largely unused for the rest of the year.

In January of 2015, I took office as the newly elected sheriff. One of the first things I did was repair what appeared to be a damaged relationship with San Juan Fire. An interlocal agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and San Juan Fire was signed for the betterment of the citizens of San Juan County. The former chief, Steve Marler, asked that we sign the interlocal agreement as is, despite the reservations he had at the time. After discussing it, we agreed we could address any issued in the future after we determined how the agreement was working.

Sentinel Operations

In 2015 I appointed Undersheriff Zac Reimer, who was than a patrol deputy, as my Marine Commander. Undersheriff Reimer came to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office as a lateral deputy from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. Then deputy Reimer had 14 years of law enforcement experience, 9 of those serving on their Marine Boat Unit as well as being a boating safety instructor for the State of Washington. Undersheriff Reimer has thousands of hours of experience on the water in the North Puget Sound area. I tasked him with setting up and updating the marine policy and training program for the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office. He then worked with San Juan Fire and Fire Boat lead, Kurt Long, in training the fire personnel on the proper and safe operations of the Sentinel, a partnership that worked well for a period of time.

Sentinel Operations Safety Issues

Starting around the summer of 2019 we began to see significant issues with the operation of the Sentinel in the form of damage being done to the hull and the outdrives. What started out as damage done to the light housings and the front rubber guard on the hull progressed into outdrive and propeller damage. This is an emergency first responder vessel and I recognize things happen. Damage will occur from time to time, however, the damage we are seeing is mostly preventable.

At the end of 2018 the starboard outdrive was replaced due to a coupler letting go inside and causing damage to the gears. There was damage to the props and the skag on the bottom of the outdrive indicating the outdrive had struck an object, likely a rock. Striking logs and sticks in the water generally does not bend props nor does it damage the lower skag. The total cost to repair that outdrive was $16,000. It was repaired and put back in service.

June 18 2019 the port outdrive started acting up and needed to be replaced. Islands Marine Center believed the propeller struck an immobile object and caused a piece of a sheer pin inside to break free and move throughout the gears causing irreparable damage to the outdrive. The prop on the starboard unit was again replaced and the boat put back into service. Total cost was $22,388.

On July 6 2019, there was an issue with Sentinel while Fire was using it for a meeting on Decatur Island. An aid call came in on Blakely and the Sentinel was rerouted to that call. Upon returning to the dock, they had problems maneuvering it and noticed the port engine was not running. Looking at the engine hours at the original departure time and comparing them to the hours at docking shows a difference of one hour between the port and starboard engine. My concern then, as it is now, is neither the captain or anyone else on board the vessel noticed they were running on one engine.

On September 6 of 2019, the Sentinel was taken to Islands Marine Center in Fisherman Bay and hauled out of the water for the 20 hour service on the new outdrives. At this time we found significant damage to both props sa well as the skags on both brand new outdrives (see attached photos #1) That same day, Undersheriff Reimer sent an email to the Sheriff’s Office personnel as well as to San Juan Fire and took the Sentinel out of service for all scheduled training and use until we could figure out why there was so much damage being done to the boat on an ongoing basis.

Chief Collins sent a return email taking exception to the boat being taken out of service (See attached email #1) and said that he could not support a unilateral decision to take the boat out of service. The Sentinel was taken out of service at that time for safety reasons. In doing so I do not require my staff to seek my permission. A conversation would then ensue shortly after to identify the safety issue, determine if it should stay out of service, or to find a corrective plan of action to get the boat back into service. I responded with a letter sent to Chief Collins outlining the issues in 2012 when the Guardian went aground off Sinclair Island injuring EMS personnel as well as patients on board. I said taking the Sentinel out of service was the prudent thing to do (see attached letter) Chief Collins called me we spoke on the phone and he agreed this was the prudent course of action until we could meet and discuss a remedy.

On September 8 2019, prior to us being able to come together to find a safe solution to this problem, fire department personnel took the Sentinel out for drill countermanding my directive to remove it from scheduled training and service for safety issues we discussed on the phone.

On June 2, 2021 Undersheriff Reimer was doing some training on the boat and checking for an overheating issue reported by San Juan Fire. No overheating issues were discovered, however, while operating the boat Undersheriff Reimer noticed a bad vibration throughout the cabin and maneuverability was difficult. The boat was taken out of the water by Jensen’s Shipyard. They noticed damage to the props, skags, that paint was worn off the lower units as well as both outdrives being out of alignment. I immediately sent an email asking to meet with Chief Collins at the shipyard to look at it out of the water and to try to get a sense of how to prevent this from happening again.

On June 3, 2021 I along with Undersheriff Reimer, met with Chief Collins and Assistant Chief Monin at Jensen’s Shipyard. I pointed out how looking at the lower skag and the way the paint was rubbed off that it was clear both motors were in the down position when it struck the bottom of the sea. Chief Collins told me that after the last damage occurred, the Sentinel does not ever leave the dock without either he or AC Monin on board. He also said that when they beach the boat at places like Washington Park, the outdrives are always all the way in the up position. I wondered aloud if perhaps the gauge on the dash was reading all the way up, but that they were not going all the way up and suggested that someone should walk back and look. Chief Collins was receptive to figuring out what was happening and said, “This is not about assigning blame, but how to keep this expensive resource from being damaged again.” I agreed with him and then we left.

Approximately three weeks later, I found out San Juan Fire had grounded the boat on May 26 while on a training exercise at Cattle Point and Golf Course Road. The boat was taken into North Bay on an outgoing low tide and was beached. At one point the crew onboard the Sentinel, which did not include either Chief Collins or AC Monin, thought the boat was on fire and that both engines along with the fire pump ceased working. None of this was relayed to the Sheriff’s Office. Instead, it was returned to the dock and a note was entered into in the Fire Log saying “overheating issues.”

After discovering Vessel Assist was called at the request of Chief Collins to tow the Sentinel off the beach and back to Jensen’s Shipyard, I contacted Deb Fritz. She relayed to me what she knew which is attached in our interoffice memo (see attached memo).

During the entire 45-minute conversation with Chief Collins or AC Monin on June 3, at no time did either of them say the boat was grounded, overheated, or had any problems or issues. This was extremely deceptive and shows a lack of respect for the Sheriff’s Office and the personnel who operate the boat.

Sentinel Status

While San Juan Fire will not have access to the Sentinel going forward, I recognize the necessity to have marine based firefighting capabilities. Should the need arise, San Juan Fire may request the Sentinel in the case of an emergency.

Sheriff Ron Krebs 


Deputy Raymond Harvey wrote a report regarding the Sentinel damage to Undersheriff Reimer:

On June 28, 2021 I spoke with Deb Fritz from Tow Boats US regarding an unrelated matter. While speaking with Fritz, she brought up the incident in which Tow Boats responded to a call from San Juan Fire when they had grounded the county Sheriff Vessel Sentinel.

Fritz advised me that she responded to North Bay at the request of San Juan Fire. Upon arrival, she spoke with Austin Foster, who was on board the boat. It sounded as though Foster may have been operating the boat at the time. Fritz stated that the bay is very shallow and has a very rocky bottom and a gradual slope. She stated she learned from them that they were conducting a fire drill, in which they were pumping the water to the monitors utilizing the fire pump. She said that she was told their fire pump engine and monitors quit working first. She believed this was most likely due to the silt they were sucking up into the pumps cooling system. She said they had the drive motors running as well and both motors ended up overheating, causing the vessel to shut down.

Fritz stated when she first got the call, Foster believed they had a fire onboard the boat, as smoke was coming from the port engine compartment. It was later determined through Fritz inspection, and observations I had made when pulling the boat from the water that the engine had overheated, and the coolant had boiled out the cap. There appeared to be gallons of coolant in the bilge on the port side, and some coolant in the bilge on the starboard side of the vessel.

Fritz stated the vessel was not operational and San Juan Fire requested they be towed to Jensen’s Marina for repair. Sometime during the tow, they were able to get the drive motors operational. Instead of taking the vessel to Jensen’s, they opted to take the vessel back to the slip without notifying the Sheriff Office of the incident that took place. They did notify us that the port engine had overheated.

On June 2, 2021 Undersheriff Reimer and I (Harvey) took the vessel to Jensen’s Marina and had it pulled. While operating the vessel into the haul out slip, I had noticed the steering, either by wheel or drive, was not responding correctly. The boat seemed as though it was crab walking through the water. There was obvious damage to the props as well. We noticed that the two motors were toenailed inward in opposite directions when the wheel was in a straight position. They both turned to the left and right, but neither had full range of motion as they were not rotated to the proper starting position. Due to the damage to one of the skags, is is possible that they could have been put out of alignment due to the high impact.

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