FALMOUTH (AP) >> Standing at the helm, John Doherty let the twin 300 horsepower engines idle as the Barnstable County Sheriff's new vessel slipped past a sea wall being rebuilt at the mouth of Falmouth Harbor.
An alarm came to life. The familiar radioactivity hubcap symbol flashed yellow and red on a small screen as a computer-generated voice bleated "artificial radiation" over and over.
Doherty, a lieutenant in the Sheriff's department and a newly appointed captain of the 31-foot vessel, paid it no mind. The other captain, Shawn Pollard, a 20-year Coast Guard veteran, turned it down and explained that the new granite being used in the wall had enough radioactivity to trigger the mobile radiation detecting device they had set up in the bow.
The vessel came to the department thanks to a $445,964 grant from the Port Security Grant Program authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2014. It is listed as a Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosives detection vessel, and it has the ability to discern extremely low levels of radiation that might be present in a "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive capable of dispersing radioactive material over a wide area, potentially contaminating it for generations.
But the vessel is much more, said the men who developed the grant proposal. It has all the bells and whistles for search and rescue, side-scan sonar for detecting bodies on the ocean floor, infrared and thermal imaging cameras that can see at night and find missing people using body heat, and a sophisticated communications system that can patch together the many different devices, channels and radio bands used by the variety of rescuers who respond to an emergency and help them coordinate their efforts.
But some maritime officials, including local harbormasters, question whether the sheriff belongs on the water or can enforce laws at sea.
"We're here to help," said John Rogorzenski, the superintendent of the county correctional facility in Bourne. "(Sheriff James Cummings) is just assisting local agencies. That's what we should be doing."
Rogorzenski describes the new vessel and the sheriff department's entrance into the marine enforcement arena in a familiar military term, as a "force multiplier," augmenting what is already available from other agencies, to detect and stop threats, and help with the public safety, rescue and recovery.
While some may think of the sheriff's office as solely focused on running the county's jail, its duties have expanded to include crime scene investigation, K-9 teams, and a county 911 dispatch facility. Cummings, Rogorzenski said, identifies needs and tries to alleviate them.
"We're not trying to take anybody's job or anything," Rogorzenski said. "We're here to help out with the big picture."
But others have been critical, saying the sheriff's office has no business on the water, has no enforcement powers at sea and is entering an area already crowded with municipal, state and federal agencies capable of doing the job.
"This is an entirely new function (of the sheriff's office) at the expense of taxpayers," said Chatham Harbormaster Stu Smith, speaking as president of the Cape & Islands Harbormasters Association.
In February, the harbormasters association wrote a letter to Soundings magazine protesting what they said were inaccurate statements by Cummings in an article in that month's edition. But they went beyond just correcting the record, saying that the sheriff's department had no business expanding into the maritime arena, suggesting the vessel should be turned over to an agency with the authority, competence and training to handle maritime missions.
"We don't see how you add another agency in an already crowded environment," Smith said Friday. "Unquestionably, you have the wrong people running the boat. There's no debate about that in the maritime community."
The Coast Guard has 21 vessels between 25 and 47 feet long at a half dozen stations around the Cape and Islands, according to Coast Guard Lt. Karen Kutkiewicz. Although she couldn't say how many have radiation detection capabilities, it is part of their mission, she said. The state environmental police have 40 vessels that patrol 1,500 square miles of shoreline. At least one — the new 52-foot Thomas Paine — has a radiation detection unit.
There are also two state police vessels and 50 local law enforcement and public safety vessels, including three with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear technology, according to the harbormasters association.
While there's disagreement over whether the sheriffs have jurisdiction on the water, it's true they are not directly named as having enforcement powers in the section of Massachusetts General Laws that designates the authority. And the Massachusetts Environmental Police agree the sheriff's department has no maritime enforcement powers, according to agency spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke.
"Our attorney, and everything I have heard from him, says we are good to go jurisdiction-wise," Rogorzenski countered. The new boat is already on the water and will expand from patrolling 40 hours a week to 80 hours by summer. They are not out there looking to enforce boating laws or fisheries regulations, Rogorzenski said. Instead, they are there to help other agencies, they say, and will only engage in law enforcement when asked by another agency.
With a sealed cabin equipped with an air filtration system, the vessel can operate in contaminated areas and could respond to nuclear threats within the county, according to the department's operations plan. They also could help with spills or pollution cleanup and provide towing as needed.
Their patrols are intended to establish a presence, providing another deterrent if someone wanted to harm large numbers of people, said Joseph Gordon, the sheriff's director of emergency management for natural and man-made disasters. Gordon is a Navy veteran of 18 years and served in Kuwait and Afghanistan.
"The worst-case scenario in this area is the ferries," he said. "You have to have a presence to let the enemy know there is somebody safeguarding that target. The Coast Guard realized we have some gaps (in radiation, chemical and biological weapons detection). They recognized that the sheriff's office could be one of the players."
Recently, members of a tactical special response team composed of officers from Falmouth, Mashpee and the sheriff's office attended a specialized training camp where they trained in boarding tactics on small and large vessels of roughly the size of the ferries, considered one of the top priority targets in the region by Homeland Security officials.
Sheriff's officials say it's one example of something the sheriff's office can supply relatively quickly; an armed response to a shooter situation that could involve hundreds of people.
The money paid out for the new vessel and training was by far the largest Port Security Grant of the $885,841 issued to the Cape and Islands region, and one of the largest for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, primarily because boats are always a big ticket item.
Coast Guard Port Security Specialist Erin Lambie, who helped with the port security grant vetting process, said that they sent out hundreds of notifications to all the maritime security agencies such as harbormasters, state police and environmental police. It's a competitive process, and she received 34 grant applications from the Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island area for $2.5 million in grant money distributed to 20 successful applicants.
Lambie said she is not allowed to divulge how high the sheriff's office bid was ranked according to priorities established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the grant, but said the sheriff's package scored well in terms of meeting national level needs. The boat cannot be transferred to another agency under the terms of the grant, Lambie said.
"This new vessel will provide a great benefit to the region by increasing the number of assets available, with greater capability, and amplifies our ability to respond to incidents quickly throughout the marine environment," she wrote in an email.
Information from: Cape Cod Times, http://www.capecodonline.com