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Members of the Morgan County Rescue Squad, above, include from left, Chief Tony Weikert, Lt. Chuck Porter, Capt. Kevin McGrew and Lt. Danny Kelso.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Members of the Morgan County Rescue Squad, above, include from left, Chief Tony Weikert, Lt. Chuck Porter, Capt. Kevin McGrew and Lt. Danny Kelso.

Rescue squad seeks better ride
Morgan County volunteers begin raising funds for $173,000 vessel

By Seth Burkett 340-2355

The Morgan County Rescue Squad is stepping up its photo-shoot fundraising efforts this year to buy a boat with ambulance and firefighting equipment.

The $173,000 boat will be the frontline craft for the rescue squad's small fleet, composed of converted fishing vessels.

The squad responded to about 100 calls last year. Squad Chief Tony Weikert estimated 85 percent of calls are water-related.

Squad members say they badly need a boat outfitted specifically for the job. The 27-foot, twin-engine Sea Ark will have a cabin with a patient bed, EMS setup and dive stations. It will also carry a pump for extinguishing small boat fires.

"The boats that we have right now are not rescue boats," Weikert said. "We bought fishing boats and put lights and radios on them."

The squad's current frontline craft is a 21-foot Bayliner bought in 1995.

Designed for gulf fishing, it's the only boat suitable for runs in the severe weather that sometimes churns 5-foot waves in the Tennessee River.

But it isn't designed for emergency work, Weikert said.

Patients can't be properly stabilized when the C-spine board has to be wedged diagonally into a small area at the front of the boat, he said.

"We don't have a boat that's covered or has any type of indoor cabin," Weikert said, "so we don't have anywhere that we can get a patient in out of the elements. We don't have anywhere that we can get in out of the elements."

Try riding one of the squad's boats on the coldest night of the year, such as Dec. 9. Rescue squad members searched for a missing kayaker for hours in 12-degree weather, Weikert said.

Boat falling apart

The squad's oldest boat, a 45-year-old ski barge, is falling apart and takes on water.

Squad members ventured out in it on the freezing night of Feb. 5, 2002, in search of a woman ejected into the river during a wreck on the Interstate 65 bridge. The search went on for 22 days.

"I didn't know if we were coming back," Weikert said. "The pain from the cold and the wind hitting us was so severe, we could only troll back."

Afterwards, squad members began wearing firefighter turnout gear to keep off winter chills compounded by the wind on the open water.

"But," Weikert said, "turnout gear is heavy. If you fall in the water, you're dead."

Weikert said he has already put in the order for the boat, though the squad is not certain how it will pay for it.

"We come out here and risk our lives at night, in the fog, in the rain and in lightning, and we're not going to let it come to the point where one of us gets killed just because we don't have enough funding," Weikert said.

The rescue squad is a volunteer service organization that receives allocations from the county and city of Decatur, but it is not directly funded by taxes, Weikert said.

Its budget is usually about $40,000 a year, he said. As of July, the squad had already spent about $4,600 on gasoline, according to members.

Members serve for free, but in order to provide their services, Weikert said, they sometimes spend as much time raising money to buy equipment as they do responding to calls.

The squad's biggest fund-raiser is a door-to-door sales drive offering Olan Mills portraits in return for donations.

Weikert said the squad successfully raised money in the county for years but steered clear of the city because members mistakenly believed Decatur had an ordinance prohibiting door-to-door sales.

Hitting neighborhoods

Now, he said, they have a business license and representatives will begin hitting neighborhoods in August. It will probably take two or three months for them to cover the city, Weikert said.

He said he hopes citizens will get behind their efforts. Fisherman, hunters and boaters aren't the only ones who need rescuing, he said. Wreck victims sometimes wind up in the water and people sometimes get lost in caves and forests.

A large number of the squad's calls are medical calls to commercial boats and barges on the river, Weikert said. He said the squad is also seeking donations from industries along the river.

Weikert said the need for a new boat has never been more apparent than it was in May, when the Bayliner and another boat, a 20-foot Weldbilt, were both out of service.

"All we had was our 40-something-year-old ski barge. Thank goodness we didn't have any bad calls or it could have been an ugly situation," Weikert said.

With barge traffic at an all-time high, population growth and eight major fishing tournaments scheduled for 2008, the squad needs to be prepared and well-equipped, Weikert said.

"Ambulances and fire trucks don't float down the river," he said. "If we're not there with the proper equipment, Morgan County won't have water rescues. We're the only people coming with boats."

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