The Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department's newest member weighs approximately three tons and is helping the 30-year-old volunteer squad meet a growing need for emergency services on the Petaluma River.

The Coast Guard Maritime Security & Safety boat — worth about $350,000 and made available through a federal surplus program grant — has allowed Lakeville to offer help to what the department calls "rapidly-increasing traffic on the Petaluma River."

"If you go out on the river, you'll notice at any given point during the day there's a lot of traffic. It's just like another highway. Up until this point, if there was a medical emergency, or a fire, or anything that occurred on the river, we could not access it by emergency response," said volunteer Brian Clarke. "There are a lot more people that are starting to use the river for recreational purposes, and there's a ferry service that may start up going from here to other points in the bay area, so we now provide a water response in a maritime environment for Sonoma County."

The department has only been operating the boat since the beginning of July, and about 10 calls have already come in requesting the boat's assistance. Clarke attributes that demand to the department's new, heightened presence and outreach on the river. Volunteers are out in the boat monitoring the river every Saturday morning, and word has begun to spread about who to call in case of an emergency.

"What we found out is that now that people see the boat out on the river, we're getting more calls for help," Clarke said.

At a little after midnight on July 5, the department received a call about a boat that had run aground in a low tide, Clarke said. One of the men on the boat had a heart condition and relied on a supply of oxygen. Firefighters arrived, and while two passengers wished to stay on the boat until high tide returned, the man on oxygen asked to be taken off. While firefighters were bringing him back to town, he ran out of oxygen, and they were able to provide him with a backup supply, Clarke said.

Clarke added that groups that use the river have started asking the department for training: "We train them about our boat, and how it is a rescue resource for them, how to get ahold of us, and what they should do if there's a rescue and we have to come," he said. 'We encourage other groups to come and contact us too."

The department's growing recognition has even earned it a newly donated, inflatable boat, capable of reaching shallower waters, and increasing access to those in need.

"Everyone is really supportive of volunteer firefighters, and we are very grateful for the public's help," said volunteer Fire Chief Nick Silva.

With the department's district reaching from the Ellis Creek sewer treatment plant ponds to San Pablo Bay and between the middle of the Petaluma River Bridge to Highway 21 by Sonoma Raceway, the Lakeville and Petaluma fire departments are sure to cross paths. The introduction of the boat, in addition to two new fire engines for Lakeville, has opened up even more opportunities for the two districts to work together.

"If somebody were to have a heart attack out here, how would we be able to respond?" asked Clarke. "You have to be able to access the water somehow. Petaluma has advanced life support capabilities, and our plan for medical response, depending on the severity, is to take their paramedics out on the boat with us, and we can take them to the victim. Or we can go do initial contact with basic life support, and bring that person to somewhere where Petaluma can meet us, then transfer care."

After buying the boat as surplus from the U.S. Coast Guard, the volunteer department was able to train in conjunction with that agency. By working alongside the Coast Guard, Lakeville firefighters saw a new opportunity to work with other fire departments to ensure better coverage and safety was given to the volunteer firefighters.

"The Coast Guard has partnered with us, so we do training with them, and the Coast Guard has made us a part of the San Francisco Bay Maritime Search and Rescue Council," said Clarke.

Although the Lakeville volunteer fire department has managed to land this boat, along with other equipment, the facilities that they are stored in are sub-par, according to Clarke. Considering the 20 volunteers they have on staff, and the four more they plan to add, this department is in need of more space, which will only decrease response time. To address the issue, Sonoma County Fire worked with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and was able to earmark $500,000 to rebuild the Lakeville station off of Lakeville Highway.

The department is currently deciding on an appropriate location for that station.

(Contact Keeley Chism at argus@arguscourier.com.)