Coon Rapids to purchase a hovercraft for water rescues

Purchase of a hovercraft for water rescue operations by the Coon Rapids Fire Department was approved by the Coon Rapids City Council Sept. 4, but it was not all plain sailing.

The city will pay $91,800 for a Universal Hovercraft 19XR-SAR (search and rescue system) model.

The new equipment is needed because the fire department’s current water rescue raft can no longer be used, according to Fire Chief John Piper.

Multiple air leaks have been repaired and it is now out of use because more repairs are needed, Piper said.

“It is no longer safe for our firefighters to use,” he said.

Delivery time of the hovercraft once ordered is estimated at four months, Piper said.

The council included $82,716 in the 2012 budget for the purchase of a hovercraft, trailer and associated training.

But that came with a caveat that Piper seek funding from other sources to help pay the cost.

Despite his best efforts, Piper said he was unable to find partners and the cost of the purchase has now risen to $91,800.

According to Sharon Legg, city finance director, there is enough money in the city’s capital equipment budget to for the purchase of the hovercraft and trailer.

And the $6,625 in training to operate the hovercraft can be taken from the proposed 2013 budget since dollars set aside for the purchase of a Lucas tool for the fire department are not needed because the equipment has been donated, Legg said.

According to Piper, the fire department needs water rescue equipment to deal with emergencies on the Mississippi River, which is heavily used by recreational watercraft – both above and below the Coon Rapids Dam.

The advantage of the hovercraft is that it is not a boat in the traditional sense in that it travels on a cushion of air, Piper said.

It is not affected by rocks, currents, high water flow or ice, he said.

Nor does it not have to be loaded on a trailer for transporting to the river and then unloaded for launching at a boat ramp, he said.

Rather, it can be driven directly from Fire Station 1, which is located on Egret Boulevard just north of Coon Rapids Boulevard, to the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, whose entry is on Egret south of the boulevard and straight into the river.

While the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office has a water patrol operation, it is charged with patrolling all bodies of water in the county and may not be on the Mississippi at the time of an emergency, according to Piper.

In that event, time would be wasted transporting the county’s watercraft to the river from the county public safety complex at Hanson Boulevard and 133rd Avenue, Piper said.

“This purchase is much needed,” he said.

According to Councilmember Jerry Koch, who lives on the river, traffic on the river upstream of the dam has been very high with boats, jet skis and water skiers and it would be irresponsible of the city not to have a water rescue craft.

There was an emergency incident a few weeks ago and the sheriff’s office water patrol happened to be on the river at the time, but that’s not always the case, Koch said.

“You hope that this is a piece of equipment you never have to use, but you have to have it just in case,” he said.

Resident Scott Nellis said purchasing the hovercraft was a waste of taxpayers’ money and the city should leave water rescue operations to the sheriff’s department, which has the equipment and the trained deputies to handle it.

According to Nellis, the fire department would have to take the hovercraft down to a boat ramp near the I-694 bridge in Fridley before it could access the river below the dam.

That’s not the case, Piper said.

There’s access for the hovercraft in the regional park below the dam because a boat ramp is not required, according to Piper.

In an interview following the meeting, Piper said a hovercraft can safely navigate the river above and below the dam in any conditions 365 days a year.

“Other types of watercraft have restrictions depending on the conditions of the river,” he said.

It does not need a boat launch – there is a boat launch above the dam, but not below it – it does not have a propeller that can be damaged in shallow water and it can traverse water, mud, ice or debris, nor is it impacted by high water flow levels, which closed the boat launch at the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park for several weeks earlier this year, according to Piper.

The trailer that is being purchased with the hovercraft will allow it to be used at other locations, Piper said.

“We would share this resource with our fire department mutual aid partners and the sheriff’s office when requested,” he said.

Resident Chad Newman also questioned the expenditure at this time.

And while he made it clear that he supported the public safety efforts of the police and fire departments, Newman said that the hovercraft extended beyond that and could be considered a “fun toy.”

But Councilmember Bruce Sanders said fire department water rescue equipment was an integral part of the city’s public safety programs.

“This is a public safety issue,” he said.

Public safety is part of the city’s responsibility, according to Councilmember Paul Johnson.

Elected officials in Coon Rapids over the years have been very supportive of public safety and he considers the hovercraft a necessity, Councilmember Scott Schulte said.

“Public safety trumps pretty much everything else,” he said.

While no councilmembers opposed the purchase of the hovercraft, Mayor Tim Howe said he struggled with his decision because of the lack of support from other communities and counties.

Indeed, the council supported Howe’s request that a letter be sent under his signature to the cities of Anoka, Champlin and Brooklyn Park as well as Anoka and Hennepin counties seeking financial contributions for the hovercraft purchase.

The council will be asked to sign off on the letter before it is sent, Howe said.

“If other communities choose not to support us, then shame on them,” Sanders said.


The city of Coon Rapids will be purchasing a 19XR-SAR (search and rescue system) hovercraft for the Coon Rapids Fire Department from Universal Hovercraft, headquartered in Rockford, Ill.

“We are looking forward to getting the hovercraft,” said Fire Chief John Piper.

Delivery time is about four months from the time it is ordered, he said.

Universal Hovercraft was founded in 1967 and makes recreational, commercial and rescue hovercraft.

According to the Universal Hovercraft website, the 19XR-SAR hovercraft features a large modular deck layout, zero entry capability and has the only stand-up style operator controls available in any rescue hovercraft.

It has a four-stroke engine, quiet operation and multi-surface capability make it the most reliable four-season rescue hovercraft available, the website states.

The 19XR-SAR is not made from fiberglass or HDPE (high-density polyethylene); rather its hulls are manufactured from Kevlar (a registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber) and carbon fiber using the latest in composites technology, which are impact resistant and will hold up in the toughest operating conditions including extreme cold and heat, according to the company website.

In addition, the 19XR-SAR hovercraft comes with a heavy duty skirting system, which allows it to be operated in the most difficult conditions without having to consider the potential for skirt wear, the website states.

“Our rescue hovercrafts are the only light hovercraft in the world designed specifically for the search and rescue application,” it states.

The hovercraft was invented by Englishman Sir Christopher Cockerell in 1956 and the first hovercraft made its bow in England in June 1959, followed the next month by the first crossing of the English Channel between England and France by a hovercraft.

Nowadays hovercrafts do not only have commercial, recreational and rescue applications, they are also used by the military for transporting tanks, soldiers and large equipment in hostile environments and terrains, according to the Wikipedia website.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]

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