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Longboat Key Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 1 month ago

Longboat Key Fire's marine rescue team covers other towns, all hours of night

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The Medical Emergency Response Team is made up of area fire departments who work together on marine rescues.
by: Sten Spinella Staff Writer

On June 4, the Longboat Key Fire Department’s Marine Emergency Response Team responded to an unusual occurrence, but one that perfectly represents the confluence of marine rescue and fire rescue.

A boat fire.

Longboat Fire’s MERT responded and put the fire out, and wall-to-wall media coverage ensued.

Triple the calls

This sort of star treatment doesn’t happen with everything Longboat’s MERT does. The unit received 72 calls for service in 2017, 106 in 2018 and, as of Aug. 5, 117 in 2019. Rescue calls (by land) have remained even this year versus the last two.

Photos taken by Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputies on scene on June 4, 2019. All photos courtesy of MCSO.

The increase in marine calls for service isn’t due to new water safety violations or some other sensational phenomenon. Lieutenant Bryan Carr, who heads LBKFD’s MERT and Fire Chief Paul Dezzi agree: “I think we’re just seeing more people out on the water,” Carr said.

Carr further attributed the rise in calls for service to the Longboat MERT’s commitment to responding mutual aid with other nearby marine units. At the moment, Longboat Fire and Venice Fire are combining to cover calls for Sarasota Fire since its boat is out of commission.

Both Carr and Dezzi pointed to population boom in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, and they’re not wrong about that – a 2019 report conducted by the Bureau of Economics and Business Research at the University of Florida predicted both Manatee County and Sarasota County would surpass 500,000 people by 2045.

Other theories about the uptick in marine calls for service: with more people comes more new boaters, who are perhaps less experienced in the art of navigating the Gulf of Mexico.

“People are running aground, getting stuck on sandbars,” Carr said. “You see New Pass and Big Pass and these channels kind of constantly change. You’ll see people go out there at high tide and come back at dusk and low tide; we’re seeing people injured by running their boats aground on that.”

Water Rescue Infrastructure

In August of 2017, Longboat Key Fire Rescue, West Manatee Fire Rescue, the City of Bradenton Fire Department, North River Fire Rescue, Venice Fire Department, Englewood Area Fire District and the Sarasota County Fire Department formed the Marine Emergency Response Team. The purpose of the accord “is to establish guidelines by which fire rescue marine assets will provide services, personnel and equipment in order to conduct maritime fire rescue services to protect life and property,” the agreement reads.  

The increase in marine calls for service isn’t due to new water safety violations or some other sensational phenomenon. “I think we’re just seeing more people out on the water,” Lieutenant Bryan Carr said.

Longboat provides one boat with advanced-life saving rescue capabilities and requires four personnel in response to marine calls, one of whom must be a U.S. Certified Boat Captain. LBK Fire Rescue has eight boat captains on staff. All marine calls automatically get a response of two marine vessels and more can be dispatched as necessary.

The police departments of the municipalities involved in MERT are not technically part of MERT responses, however, if they’re on the water, they will assist.  

Longboat Fire’s MERT is fundamental to a complex water rescue ecosystem on Longboat. Whereas the police department’s water response team works 12-hour day shifts, MERT is on-call 24/7. When Longboat PD has a boat on the water, they’re going to beat the fire department to the scene since MERT responds from the south fire station.

Officials from the police and fire departments have said the water rescue personnel work together closely.

“What’s great with PD is they usually have somebody on the water to give us updates, like if we need to grab any additional equipment from the truck,” Carr said.

One of the MERT captains for nine years, Carr said the team has three captains on each shift, so that the boat is always available to run. They run to everything from the north tip of Anna Maria south to Stickney Point and as far as they need to go out into the Gulf to complete a rescue.

Photos taken by Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputies on scene on June 4, 2019. All photos courtesy of MCSO.

MERT carries advanced life support equipment onboard, and its members are always prepared to handle trauma. Its members are also always prepared to move quickly. When they receive a call, “We essentially run over to the marina and drop the boat in the water,” Carr said.

It can be difficult for Longboat marine police officers to execute major rescues because they usually only have one person aboard. They can’t leave the vessel to grab someone and helm it at the same time. Conversely, MERT will have a minimum of four responders when hitting the water. That leaves a captain, multiple rescue swimmers and others to take care of situations. More personnel means an easier job of fighting vessel fires, whether that means boarding the vessel in question or manning the pump from the fire boat.   

New night vision equipment is also a boon to Longboat Fire’s MERT.

“Anybody can operate a boat at three o'clock in the afternoon on a sunny day,” Carr said. “But that's not usually when we get called. Usually it's 3 a.m. and pitch-black outside, and there's seven-footers in the pass, and we're out there just trying to navigate and trying to pluck somebody from the water or help somebody that’s in a life-threatening situation.”

Main problems to address

Four recent rescues illustrate some of the more dangerous missions of the LBKFD. One report filed on July 2 tells of a search for four missing kayakers, who were ultimately found in open waters off Sarasota. The Coast Guard rescued three of the people from the water, and one swam to shore. 

“Anybody can operate a boat at three o'clock in the afternoon on a sunny day, but that's not usually when we get called.” – Bryan Carr

Another example from July 10 had Longboat arriving at Midnight Pass near Siesta Key. Firefigher Tirso Guerrero jumped in and assisted someone who appeared to be struggling in rough water back to shore. 

On July 12, Longboat Fire MERT responded to a sailboat in distress. It had struck a sandbar in approximately 4’ seas. Two LBKFD swimmers released the dingy on the vessel and the two occupants were placed in the dinghy before all four were pulled back to the fire boat.

On July 18, the Longboat Fire MERT was dispatched at the request of the Coast Guard for an overdue boater. They found the missing boater off of New Pass, picked them up and towed in their boat.

Of course, it’s possible you won’t hear of Longboat Fire’s MERT again until another boat blaze.

Sten Spinella is a Town Hall Reporter for the Longboat Observer. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and his master's degree from the University of Missouri. 

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