LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE — The state’s biggest lake is a playground, especially during the dog days of summer. Thousands of people come to Winnipesaukee to recreate in, or on, the clear water, or to escape to one of the more than 200 inhabited islands.

At any moment, though, peaceful relaxation can turn into an emergency, and there’s a network of people trained, prepared and equipped to respond.

Such a response was illustrated on Saturday, July 27, when a 25-foot Formula powerboat was refueling at the Weirs docks. It was ideal summer weather, and the boardwalk and nearby Winnipesaukee Pier were crowded. The docks were full of boats, and there were other boats nearby, either trying to find a place to dock or for their turn at the gas pump.

There was a problem, though. The owner of the Formula, Jason Johnson, a 39-year-old man from Derry, was having trouble restarting his boat. Then the engine compartment exploded.

Lisa Figaro was among the many people who happened to be nearby.

"I was with my husband and four children at the arcade at the pier when we heard something that sounded like a boat crashing into the dock. Shortly after, there were screams of a fire and everyone was running out of the arcade. My husband, a lieutenant with the FDNY, ran down to the boat on fire to see if he could help."

Johnson, as well as several other passengers, leapt from the boat to escape the fire. A pair of jet skiers grabbed the boat’s dock ropes and pulled it away from the gas pump and docked boats. Soon, a Marine Patrol boat was racing across the lake, followed by a Laconia Fire Department boat and another from Gilford.

In the end, all that was lost was property. All of the passengers were rescued from water, no one else was hurt.

A firefighter’s legacy

Kirk Beattie, Laconia’s fire chief, said the Lakes Region has come a long way when it comes to emergency preparedness in general, and especially when it comes to its marquee water body.

Beattie joined the department in 1997. At that time, the city’s fire department had two small Zodiac-style boats and some ice rescue suits.

The department had another resource: Lt. Mark Miller, who recognized a shortcoming in the city’s ability to respond to incidents on and in the water.

Miller, an expert diver, had a vision to expand LFD’s rescue capacities, specifically to start a dive rescue team. He was pursuing that goal on March 11, 2004, testing some new dive equipment off of Weirs Beach, when he drowned.

Later that year, LFD was able to purchase a 23-foot Edgewater boat, funded solely through donations dedicated to Miller.

Today, the department also has access to a pontoon boat, which it shares with Belmont, for rescues on Lake Winnisquam; another boat that serves Paugus Bay; and a small, towable boat for Lake Opechee and the Winnipesaukee River. All have been funded through donations, Beattie said, adding that they have all been a tribute to Miller.

“It was Mark Miller’s dream to build our water rescue capacity, and he was working on that when he passed,” Beattie said. “Mark very much left his mark on the city. Mark’s vision is still in our minds.”

Beattie described the region’s ability to respond to emergencies on the lake as “very good,” but added, “I think we’re getting to the point where we need to upgrade some of our equipment. I think our training level, I think our personnel do a very good job of responding to these situations.”

Over the course of his career, Beattie said he’s seen dramatic leaps in both technology and training — steps that have added up to make the job safer and more efficient.

“And that’s what we’re seeing with water rescue as well,” he said.

Especially when it comes to calls on Winnipesaukee, Laconia’s not working alone.

“We work very closely with our mutual aid partners,” Beattie said.

The newest fire boat on the lake belongs to Gilford, and Fire Chief Stephen Carrier isn’t shy about his pride for it.

“It’s a huge improvement over our old boat,” Carrier said.

The town took delivery of its 30-foot fire boat, manufactured by the Milton-based Eastern Boats, earlier this summer.

Gilford’s new boat, christened the “Lake Jake,” is a deep-V hulled boat with an enclosed cabin. It’s more stable in rough waters than the 41-year-old, flat-bottomed boat it replaced. It’s also easier to step into from the dock, and it offers a better platform for delivering care once a patient is on board.

It also has a pump that can pour 1,500 gallons per minute on a fire, such as the boat that burst into flame at the Weirs gas dock.

Carrier said the department has used the boat to respond about 25 times already this summer, and he said that the most valuable upgrade is in its electronics — specifically, a navigational system that knows not only where the rocks and shallow water are, but also the precise location of each of the many hundreds of island residences on Winnipesaukee.

When a call comes in for an island — there are 19 inhabited islands and 290 island residences in Gilford alone — it’s one thing to know the address and another to know where that residence is.

“Sometimes the only thing you can see from the water is a dock,” Carrier said. Precious moments can be lost hunting for the right place. “We recommend that everyone post their address on the dock with some reflective characters.”

The town paid more than a quarter of a million dollars for the new fire boat, even after about $20,000 in private donations defrayed the total price. The boat’s name comes from a firefighter-speak term used to indicate a valuable team member.

“Everybody wants to be known as a great ‘jake,’ a great firefighter,” Carrier said.

He expects the boat to serve for about 30 years, after which he’s sure it will earn its name.

“There’s more people using the lake all the time,” he said. “Boating traffic continues to increase.”

Marine Patrol

Boaters who have never had a bad day on the water might think of Marine Patrol as the traffic cops on the lake, who watch for boating violations or want to know how many life jackets they’ve got on board. However, if anyone’s had to call 9-1-1 from a boat or from an island, Tim Dunleavy said, they know that Marine Patrol is usually the first to arrive to help.

Dunleavy is a 31-year veteran of Marine Patrol. He is currently a captain in the unit, organized under the Department of Safety and headquartered at Glendale Docks in Gilford.

“All Marine Patrol officers are trained in basic first aid, CPR, and trained in the use of AEDs [automatic electronic defibrillators],” Dunleavy said. “I would say that we often times are the first ones to arrive to various calls that come in from a boat or one of the many islands that are inhabited on Winnipesaukee.”

Marine Patrol officers will render aid for medical calls, if necessary, and serve as a beacon for other responders trying to find the scene of the emergency.

If there’s a fire, Marine Patrol will keep curious onlookers at a safe distance, or will ferry firefighters from the mainland if there’s a structure or woods fire on an island.

Dunleavy said that Marine Patrol might also field police-type calls that come from islands, especially if the town’s police department isn’t able to rapidly respond.

“We deal with intoxicated persons, we deal with domestic violence calls, we deal with neighbor disputes, with boundary disputes, we deal with people with mental health issues,” Dunleavy said. “Anything that happens downtown on a Saturday night can just as easily happen on an island somewhere.”

Many of the island properties have professional security systems or, more recently, homeowner-installed cameras that feed to their smartphones. Once the islands are vacated for the off-season, they can become targets for property crimes.

“We are responding to these islands all times of the year,” Dunleavy said.

Simple steps

Greg Trombi, a lieutenant with the Alton Fire Department, said people going out on the lake can take some simple steps to avoid the need to call for help. It’s not uncommon, he said, for rescuers to be called out for someone who didn’t realize a thunderstorm was coming.

“Pay attention to the weather. Look at the weather before you go out. Keep an eye on the sky; if it looks bad, head in,” Trombi said.

He has seen waves get whipped by wind up to eight feet — enough to swamp smaller vessels.

Trombi said many calls are necessitated after a few common errors: “It’s either weather, driving irresponsibly, or not knowing the lake,” he said. “If you don’t know the lake, have someone that does, or be sure you know what those buoys mean, and have a chart with you — basic navigational equipment, like a chart and a compass you can use,” and personal flotation devices, he said.

Dunleavy said proper equipment maintenance is another preventive measure, as well as basic education.

“I would encourage them to take a safe boater course, which we offer. Be prepared with your safety equipment, know how to use it, and be sure that the boat is maintained. So many people, their days go bad before they even go out on the water. Their boat doesn’t start, or there’s water in their gas,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s the element of intoxication. The effects of alcohol and drugs are exacerbated by the boating environment, he noted. Whether it’s the sun exposure, the heat, or the vibration of the boat, he said, “it’s completely different from sitting in your recliner and watching the Super Bowl in February.”

In his three decades of service, Dunleavy said he has come to appreciate the veteran island residents. They’ve got back-up light bulbs, an extra fuel tank, and have taken other measures to guard against the unexpected.

“Even when they run into trouble, we find that [island] people are well-prepared to drop anchor and wait for assistance. It’s not a panic situation,” Dunleavy said.

When the boat caught fire at the Weirs, many people leapt to action, including some without professional experience. Dunleavy said it’s not surprising that humans react instinctively to emergencies on the water.

“If you look at the history of transportation, boating, sailing and shipping have been around for much longer than any road-type vehicle. There are traditions in boating and navigating that are unwritten, there are laws that are unwritten, and assisting somebody on the water, whether they’re your enemy or not, whether you’ve ever met them, you always assist them. It’s part of the culture. People on the water help each other.”

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