Saugatuck Township Fire District Now Charging To Tow Stranded Boaters
“The fire department is not a towing service,” Jane VerPlank, chair of the Saugatuck Township Fire District, said when asked to comment about the fire department’s recent rescuing of a stranded boater in the Kalamazoo River, then invoicing him a hefty $700 for that rescue.
Saugatuck Township Fire District Chief Greg Janik echoed VerPlank’s exact statement, noting boat towing involves high liability, drains public funds and diverts resources and personnel from otherwise real emergency needs.
“You really, really hate to do it, but the department has to do something to protect the citizens (taxpayers generate the department’s revenue),” said Janik.
“When the incident is above and beyond what the department is expected to do, you just want to recoup true cost,” said Janik. “We don’t do car towing. Where should we draw the line?”
Now with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Allegan County Sheriff’s Department pulling their boats out of the water for the winter season, the fire department has been involved in five water rescues just over the last six weeks.
But not all have been emergencies, including the one on the evening of September 26.
“We had nine people out on that call. Nine people (three officers, five firefighters, and the chief himself). There was no medical or emergency need; it was just that his engine didn’t work,” Janik said about the incident involving boater Louis Williams.
Williams is now required to reimburse the department a total of $704.41, a fact he is not pleased about.
“I don’t blame Mr. Williams, but it does tie us up for true emergency needs,” noted Janik. “We’ll respond when there is a life threatened, an emergency need or boat fire.”
The request to help Williams was made through a call to the Saugatuck-Douglas Police Department and subsequently Allegan County Central Dispatch.
Liability for risks during towing could involve, for example, the crashing of boats or pulling a cleat out of a boat’s deck, said Janik.
His recommendation to boaters?
“Be prepared and buy boat insurance with towing service like I do…I’ve been a boater for 38 years. I’ve been to South America, the Bahamas, the entire Caribbean, all over Europe and never once did it occur to me to call in the fire department to tow me in.”
To address the need for cost reimbursement, the fire chief, with the support of the fire board, decided to make use of an existing ordinance.
“It’s (water rescues involving boats) really impacting our cost and I decided to do something about it,” said Janik, referring to the Cost Recovery Ordinance 32.87 which lawfully permits the district to require reimbursement for expenses incurred for water rescues, among other incidents.
Williams did not respond to The Observer Newspaper’s request for comments regarding the incident.
Explaining the incident involving Williams, Janik said, “The boat was rafting down river. Don’t know how it -or what -happened; that is not our position.
“I did feel it was an emergency. There was no anchor set, there was no attempt to get the engine going and there were three engines, two trolling motors and one main outboard engine,” said Janik.
The $700 Williams will now have to pay pales in comparison to the $1,500 a boater can expect to pay for boat towing service, said Janik.