St. John EMS in Need of New Ambulance Boat

The Star of Life, donated to St. John EMS in 1991, is need of replacement. Photo by Jaime Elliott

The one ambulance boat, the Star of Life, which transports patients from St. John to St. Thomas in an emergency needs to be replaced.

The 42-foot boat, a seized vessel which was donated to EMS, has been in service since 1991, according to V.I. Department of Health spokesperson Eunice Bedminster. The fact that the Star of Life was a confiscated vessel presents problems, explained St. John EMS Association member Captain Liston Sprauve.

“It was drug confiscated, so we have no history on the boat whatsoever,” said Sprauve. “We only know what’s happened to it since we updated it in 1991.”

The Star of Life’s engines now need overhauling, and the boat’s structure is of concern, explained St. John EMS Association Presi-dent Carol Beckowitz.

“The boat operates on two engines, and both need to be overhauled,” said Beckowitz. “That’s a very long, expensive process, and there’s really no way to determine how many hours are left on each engine, but it needs to be done relatively soon. The boat is operational, but there are some structural concerns.”

“There’s no imminent danger, but these are things we need to be looking at; reasons we need to be making some headway on purchasing this new boat,” Beckowitz added.

The Department of Health did advertise for bids for the “fabrication and delivery of a new 55-foot aluminum patient transfer and rescue vessel” in October 2006, but no bids were received, according to Bedminster.

No Bids Received
Should the Star of Life become inoperable, EMS contacts the Red Hook Boat Service for help, Bedminster added. The ambulance boat was hauled out last year from July 1 through August 8 for its annual cleaning and painting.

It has become costly and ineffective to maintain the Star of Life, explained Sprauve.

“The boat is old and deteriorating in some areas, and the engines are almost worn out,” said Sprauve. “Even if this boat is repaired, it’s still going to be inadequate. To get this boat back in really good condition will cost anywhere from $125,000, and even once you spend a lot of money, you still have an inadequate boat when you’re through.”

Plans for a new ambulance boat to be constructed in Louisiana are in the works, explained Becko-witz.

“I don’t necessarily have the most updated information, but my understanding is the boat is tentatively scheduled to be built in Louisiana, but because of the bid process required by the government, the Department of Health had to advertise for bids to see if there is anyone locally would could take on that job,” she said. “It’s been scheduled to be built on and off for the past four years.”
The Department of Health, however, may not currently have enough money for the construction of an ambulance boat.

$135,000 for Ambulance Boat
“I have been told initially that the department had somewhere in the realm of $750,000 that could be used for emergency medical transportation costs,” said Beckowitz. “About 18 months ago, there was approximately $350,000 left — the other money had been spent on ambulances. The St. John EMS Association was under the assumption there was still $350,000 available to put toward a new ambulance boat, but apparently there was a meeting a couple of weeks ago, where it was announced there is only $135,000 left.”

The money was used for other territorial needs, explained Becko-witz.

One Boat Enough
“Some of the other money had to be spent on new ambulances,” she said. “This money is for all three islands, so it’s not like they took money away from St. John.”

Regardless of when the Depart-ment of Health acquires a new ambulance boat, it will be stationed on St. John. One boat is enough for St. John’s emergency needs, explained Beckowitz.

“We have a stretcher lock-in device for one stretcher, and if we have to transport a second patient, we put that patient on the long bench,” said Beckowitz. “In the event of a mass casualty, then all the rules are out — we just transport as many as we can. In that case, the boat has a large aft deck area, where we could carry quite a few patients on back boards.”

“Less and Less Safe”
Recent discussion over the need for a new ambulance boat has brought to light another aspect of emergency transportation — which method is best.

“One of the caveats with the discussion of the production of the boat is there’s been some confusion with all the different players about what is the best way to handle medical transports from the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center to the R.L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas,” said Beckowitz.

“There’s quite a flux of ideas out there about whether the best approach would be a helicopter, a barge, an ambulance boat, or a combination of all of the above, and to my knowledge, there’s never been one unified task force that has looked at this situation from all aspects of it, including the realities, the logistics, the funding, having the staffing to handle it and which department would be in charge of it,” added Beckowitz.

“All of those things need to be considered, and to my knowledge, there is not one large concerted effort to answer these questions,” the St. John EMS Association president added. “It seems as though there are many people from many different avenues who are looking into it separately.”

While the debate over the best emergency transportation method may continue indefinitely, the fact remains that St. John needs a new ambulance boat.

“St. John Administrator Leona Smith and Senator at Large Carmen Wesselhoft are aware of, and concerned about, the situation,” said Beckowitz. “The issue is not that the boat won’t carry enough patients. The problem is we have a boat becoming less and less safe to carry any patients.”