Come High Water, Rescuers Are Ready: Newly Acquired Vehicle Will Help During Flooding, Storms

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Storms

Chatham’s new high-water rescue vehicle. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM When a series of coastal storms inundated Little Beach early this year, it was the first time in recent memory that rising water left people stranded in vulnerable neighborhoods. And with the barrier beach eroding and the sea level rising, officials predict it’ll happen again.

When it does, the town will be ready to deploy its new high-water rescue vehicle to get rescuers into flooded areas and to get any stranded residents out to high ground.

The two-and-a-half-ton truck is capable of driving through more than three feet of standing water, Fire Chief Peter Connick said. It was built in 1998 as a Stewart and Stevenson LMTV, or light medium tactical vehicle, and was assigned to the Vermont National Guard.

“We’re pretty happy,” Connick said. The truck is fully functional now and under the jurisdiction of the emergency management department. Firefighters have all been trained on operating the vehicle, which is slightly narrower than a fire truck and somewhat more maneuverable.

The truck was purchased from its most recent owner, the West Barnstable Fire Department, for $1,500. It has about 6,000 miles on the odometer and runs perfectly, the chief said.

“They had it for Sandy Neck,” where they used it to fight brush fires, Connick said. The firefighting equipment has been removed, leaving just a cargo area with benches in the back. To reach those benches, passengers have to climb up a ladder, and while the department may ultimately cover the back with a canopy, for now it remains open. The ride is loud and bumpy, but people stranded in high water aren’t likely to be critical, the chief quipped.

The truck is likely to see action in the Little Beach neighborhood, as well as Eastward Point and on Salt Pond Road, three areas that were inundated in storms in January and March. Of course, the best option for residents there is to leave before the water rises.

“We certainly don’t want people to feel more comfortable not evacuating, just because there’s a vehicle,” he added. In certain circumstances, like crossing deep, fast-moving water, the high-water rescue vehicle isn’t safe to use.

“We can’t guarantee the depth of the water,” Connick said.

The town already has policies in place that govern when emergency vehicles can be driven through high water. In the most recent storms, crews used the oldest of the department’s pumper trucks to attempt a rescue on Starfish Lane, without success. The water was too deep, so rescuers used an inflatable boat instead. Salt water is also particularly harmful to cars and trucks.

“I don’t have any desire to put one of our new engines through that,” Connick said.

The high-water rescue vehicle is one part of the town’s comprehensive response to the threat of more frequent coastal flooding. Town officials have been working with private property owners in the Little Beach neighborhood, and on Morris and Stage islands, to prevent some flooding and to reduce the duration of high water when floods do happen.

This week, State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, announced $650,000 in earmarks for Chatham’s flood control measures, included in the Environmental Bond Bill recently passed by the state senate. Most of that money, $400,000, will help the town conduct dredging and beach nourishment at a number of town beaches. The earmark also includes $250,000 to help the town analyze and replace the tide gate on Morris Island Road.

“In the aftermath of multiple nor’easters hitting the Cape and Islands last winter, I reached out to town officials across my district to identify how the state could help expedite coastal resiliency plans, and support the upgrade of critical infrastructure to enhance shoreline protection,” Cyr wrote in a news release. The earmarks are a result of those conversations, he said. “Stewardship of our coastal environment in the midst of a changing climate will remain a top priority for my office,” Cyr added.

The senator also successfully included an amendment to the bond bill that allows towns to use grant funds to hire a regional coordinator who would oversee climate adaptation programs in the area. That person would also work with towns and utility companies to find ways to make public utilities more modern and disaster-resistant.

The Environmental Bond Bill goes next to conference committee to reconcile with a House version, but Cyr said he’s hopeful that his earmarks will remain in the version likely to be signed by the governor.

The efforts are an acknowledgment that communities like Chatham will experience more flooding in the years ahead. When it comes to high-water rescues, Connick said he expects them to happen more regularly, thanks largely to the erosion of the protective barrier beach.

But the new vehicle has other potential uses. It is equipped with giant tires, and with a push of a button, the operator can lower the pressure in the tires to allow easy passage over sand. Where there is adequate room to maneuver, the vehicle can be used to respond to emergencies on Lighthouse Beach or other beaches. Several years ago, a large trawler became stranded on the beach, and crews had to make many trips with a pickup truck to shuttle the necessary equipment to the scene. The new vehicle would have handled the job much more efficiently, Connick said. When the vehicle is ready to drive on pavement again, the operator pushes another button and the tires inflate again.

The town has had mixed luck with military vehicles in the past. An army surplus five-ton truck and another two-and-a-half-ton truck stood unused for many years before the town disposed of them.

“They were free, but not reliable,” Connick said. Those vehicles were only in fair condition when the town acquired them, and funds were not available to make initial repairs or to maintain them.

“This one was already in excellent shape,” he said. More importantly, the new truck will be stationed inside an available garage bay at the wastewater treatment plant, kept out of the weather and on a battery charger. “That will extend the life of this significantly,” Connick said. The vehicle should require minimal service provided that it remains indoors when not in use, he said.

The town might ultimately paint over the camouflage pattern on the truck, but that is not a high priority, Connick said. Officials do intend to install a backup camera to allow it to be maneuvered more safely, he said. The truck has already been outfitted with a public safety two-way radio and with minimal expense, thanks to work done in West Barnstable.

Email Alan Pollock at alan