Taxpayers have shelled out nearly $2.5 million to form a Marine Strike Team, part of a Homeland Security initiative for the Port of Providence and Narragansett Bay. While the team has been effective in disaster response, Jim Hummel finds the four boats purchased with federal tax money have had recurring, and costly problems - knocking one out of the water for more than a year.
It is the second-largest deepwater port in New England. And because of that - the Port of Providence offers both economic opportunities and potential safety problems.
A massive fuel fire at the Motiva terminal five summers ago reinforced the belief among fire officials that they needed reinforcements on the water.
Dillon: ``Well, Motiva was one of the big issues, but it had always been our intention to acquire a waterside asset, to have some sort of fireboat.''
Providence Fire Chief Michael Dillon says for years he and others had envisioned forming a Marine Strike Team. Instead of relying on one large boat, they'd spread the resources.
So the fire departments surrounding the port - East Providence, Providence, Cranston and Warwick secured federal funding - for four high-tech, high-powered response boats.
Their choice: The Firestorm 30 - powered by twin 320 Cummings MerCruiser Diesel engines.
Dillon: ``It's a 34-foot all-weather, all-hazard capable, boat.''
And over the past three years the strike team has operated as planned: responding to emergencies like a boatyard fire in Portsmouth; a chemical exposure on a ship just off New Bedford; the Despair Island fatal crash a year ago; and fires on a barge in East Providence and the Russian Sub that was berthed for years at Collier Point.
Dillon: ``We've created relationships with all four of these fire departments - now these fire departments are working together, training together, talking together, learning from each other, which is something if we did not have this capability that probably would not be going on to this day.''
The initial grant from Homeland Security paid for three vessels, all costing close to $600,000 by the time they were equipped. Providence, Cranston and East Providence received the first three, which were manufactured by a company in Ontario.
Warwick got its boat a year later, in the summer of 2009, when additional money became available.
Together the boats can pump up to 10,000 gallons of water per minute - taking the water right out of the Bay. Each has the very latest in electronics.
But each of the vessels has also been plagued by a series of mechanical problems that at times has knocked them out of the water for months at a time. The Cranston boat - ironically named Valiant - has had the worst of it, going through four engines and a warranty dispute with the manufacturer, Cummins-Mercury.
It has not been in the water for more than a year, sitting behind a substation on Oaklawn Avenue. Deputy Chief Bernard Patenaude says his crew didn't even make it to Narragansett Bay before a water hose broke.
Hummel: ``When did you first begin having some issues?''
Patenaude: ``We've had minor engine issues...one boat on the way down had an engine issue and that was the first.''
Hummel: ``Right from the get-go.''
Patenaude: ``Well, we were just about to Rhode Island when we had the problem.''
Hummel: `But it was on the maiden voyage.''
Patenaude: ``Yes it was.''
The Providence boat, Marine 1, had a crankshaft go within months, then an exhaust elbow, knocking it out of the water for most of one season.
Warwick had the crankshaft on its boat, Marine 4, go as well a couple months after taking delivery. The engine had fewer than 140 hours on it.
East Providence's Marine 3 has been the most reliable, but not without a series of minor problems that a new boat owner would not expect to have to deal with.
We took a ride this week on Warwick's boat, which tops out at just under 40 miles an hour and can circle or maneuver in tight places. It is an impressive vessel with state-of-the-art equipment.
So what has gone wrong? Warwick Capt. Pete Sisson tells the Hummel Report Cummins-Mercury subbed out the engine job to an Italian company and - quite simply - they manufactured a poor product that is incompatible with the Firestorm 30 - even though everyone signed off on it originally.
Chief Patenaude says the engine company has not stood by its product.
Patenaude: ``What they've said it was an improper use of that engine - it's a pleasure craft engine, so it would be used intermittently and we're using it too much. But they approved it originally when we specked it out, they said, `Yeah that would be good for that.'''
Dillon: ``The mission has changed. There's more equipment on the boat, we're putting more people on the boat, so the weight of the boat has changed a little bit from the design.
Because we're going farther and farther with these boats and we want them to be long-term.
You know I think these hulls will last a minimum of 30 years. We want to make sure that we have the best possible motor in there.''
Patenaude: ``Each time they would replace it, but this last time they changed - it's the engine-manufacturer's warranty we're going on. The last time they replaced it they said, `Well we're only going to warranty it for the amount of time of the original engine warranty.' So when we bought the boat that original engine had three years; each replacement got shorter and shorter and finally they said: you're all done.''
Hummel: ``Do you feel they're changing the rules in the middle of the game?''
Hummel: ``The warranty, then, doesn't get reset? What you're saying is that they're playing out the clock?''
Patenaude: ``Right. The last engine was (given a warranty of) about 100 hours.''
Hummel: ``Shouldn't it be reset with each new engine?''
Patenaude: ``You would think.''
So what does Cummins-Mercury have to say?
A corporate spokesman in South Carolina issued a statement that reads in part:
``We have one of the best warranties in the marine industry and we follow it both in letter and in spirit. However, our corporate policy is to not comment on specific customer interactions.''
Hummel: ``Given the totality of that picture, do you think the taxpayers have gotten their money's worth?''
Dillon: ``Yes, absolutely. Even with one boat down or even if two boats went down we still have a tremendous capability that would not have existed.''
Chief Patenaude's goal right now is securing additional funding from the federal government to find a different company's engine. The estimated price tag: another $125,000.
Hummel: ``So that's $2 million worth of boat and the question is, what do you have to show for it?''
Patenadue: ``We have some very nice boats.''
Hummel: ``Be nice if they were in the water.''
Hummel: ``It's got to be tremendously frustrating for you guys.''
Patenaude: ``It is and we're working on several different strategies to get funding to replace them and then the federal government can do what they need to do legally, to go back after them, but our goal is to get the boats back in the water, and running efficiently.''
The goal they all had right from the start.
Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.