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Homeland Security grant buys hovercraft

By Meagan Ingerson
September 28, 2007

Thousands of dollars in Homeland Security Department grant money given to Marion and Hamilton counties isn't going to airport surveillance or special ops training.

Instead, it is paying for a hovercraft.

The six-passenger craft bought by emergency management officials from the two counties will be used in water, ice and snow rescues, according to Debbie Fletcher, spokeswoman for Marion County Emergency Management.

The craft's $59,600 cost includes a towing trailer and a pilot training course. It was purchased July 26 from the Terre Haute-based company Neoteric Hovercraft.

The purchase was paid for by a 2005 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the Indianapolis Urban Area Security Initiative, which includes Marion and Hamilton counties, Fletcher said. The initiative is part of a national homeland security program designed to protect cities with populations of more than 100,000.

The federal government has given states billions to help them prepare for emergencies. Some local government purchases have been criticized because they didn't directly address possible terrorist threats.

While he did not criticize the hovercraft purchase, state Sen. Thomas J. Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, said purchases made with Department of Homeland Security grants must be used primarily for counterterrorism purposes. Wyss chairs the state Senate committee that oversees homeland security spending.

"Homeland Security money is not just for taking care of your, quote, everyday needs that you have for public safety," he said. "First and foremost, it's there for protection and prevention in counterterrorism."

The hovercraft could also be used for security purposes such as collecting evidence or surveillance, Fletcher said.

"(A purchase) has to have a homeland security basis, but the point of homeland security is (to protect against) all hazards," she said, adding that this includes natural disasters and other emergencies.

The technology will be especially helpful in emergencies at area dams, where rescue boats often get stuck in the current, Fletcher said.

"People get caught and tumble over the dam area . . . and (rescue) watercraft get stuck," she said. "The hovercraft sits above that so that it doesn't get caught in the water flow."

Wyss, who serves as the head of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, said he was aware of the hovercraft purchase but had not seen the specific proposal or how it was linked to homeland security.

"Apparently, Indianapolis must have had a good enough reason for the U.S. government to authorize it," he said, adding, "I'm hopeful there's going to be good utilization of it."

The urban security initiative, which is made up of representatives from police and fire departments in Marion and Hamilton counties, decided a hovercraft was necessary for local water rescues, Fletcher said.

Marion County performs about 150 water rescue runs a year, she said. Boats are deployed in about 60 of those cases, she said, with diver teams making up the remainder of the runs.

"One of the gaps that they found was for swift-water rescues and ice rescues and some of the low-head dams that we have, we don't have a piece of equipment that does very well," she said.

Fletcher cited a case in September 2003 at Fall Creek, when a woman died after her car was trapped in floodwaters. Fletcher said rescue workers could not reach the victim because the current was too fast.

County government inspectors will look at the craft Oct. 5, Fletcher said, with training set to start at Neoteric soon after. The initiative plans to keep two trained pilots for the craft on call at any given time.

Neoteric President Chris Fitzgerald said hovercrafts are good alternatives to helicopters and boats in flood rescues, which he said can be very dangerous.

Vigo County emergency crews own a smaller, two-passenger hovercraft from Neoteric, said Vigo County Emergency Management Director Dorene Hojnicki. The craft was donated to the department in 1991.

Hojnicki said the department has found the craft to be "not all that useful." The model is too small to be practical in rescue efforts. The county does not perform many water rescues, and the hovercraft equipment is expensive to maintain, she said.

"(Hovercrafts) definitely have a place. We just found here locally that we don't really use it," she said.

In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, under pressure to get money to local agencies as soon as possible, the state distributed about $22 million in Department of Homeland Security money to local agencies without supervising spending. The state then asked local governments in 2005 to produce receipts for purchases or return the funds.

 
 
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