Longboat's marine presence allows help to respond quickly. Part of two stories on the police department's water rescue apparatus.
Water rescues can be elaborate operations involving ingenuity and bravery. They can also be, and often are, false alarms. What they are absolutely not, though, is average.
"There’s never a normal, they’re always different,” Longboat Police Deputy Chief Frank Rubino said. “Whether it’s an overturned bird boat, a boater in distress because the seas are too high and the boat broke down, a paddleboarder that got caught and taken out to sea, an overturned jet ski, it could be a swimmer in distress getting caught in one of the riptides; it’s just never a normal rescue.”
In 2017 there were 35 calls for service resulting in 16 rescues; in 2018 there were 15 calls and four rescues; in 2019 there have been 14 calls and five rescues with most of the summer still to come.
“It's just never a normal rescue.” – Deputy Chief Frank Rubino
Longboat police and fire crews run to every call as if it’s real. Witnesses, sometimes from the high-rise buildings on the beach, may report what they think is a person struggling in the water. “So you see, a lot of the rescue calls don’t turn into actual rescues,” Rubino said.
Network of support
Collaboration is key. Longboat’s police department works alongside the town’s fire department, which has a boat, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office, the Sarasota Police Department, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), even Venice law enforcement agencies. All trade assistance.
Venice has helped Longboat on the 4th of July in the past, as Jewfish Key has posed a problem with drinking and disturbances. The FWC and the Coast Guard – which gets most of the rescue calls – are instrumental in Longboat’s marine police presence. The Fire Department and the Police Department work together closely.
“If we have a rescue say on Jewfish where we need to get a medic out there, they’ll [the Fire Department] either jump on our boat, or we’ll jump on their boat with them, or we’ll just meet them out there,” Rubino said.
Whenever a big event like Memorial Day or a regatta occurs, partnering with these offices has proven effective for Longboat.
On the Fourth, Longboat Police had three officers on the water. Longboat usually has one officer patrolling its waters. Two officers split time during the week putting in 12-hour shifts; there is a reserve marine officer as well. Marine officers are not on call (the Fire Department is available 24/7). These officers have a large coverage area – approximately 20 square miles – and not a lot of people to cover it.
This speaks to why collaboration is necessary. As Rubino noted, only a few officers are out on the water, so backup consists of neighboring agencies who are hopefully close by enough to respond promptly, whereas calling for backup on land will yield a dozen or so people responding.
Both marine officer Josh Connors and Rubino mentioned routine meetings where the collaborative agencies share information on how to improve communication and water rescue in general.
“We encourage each one to go into each other’s jurisdictions in case there is a rescue call or they need a backup,” Rubino said.
Connors blares both the Coast Guard radio and Longboat’s police radio while steering Longboat’s vessel through the department’s AOR, or area of responsibility.
Marine patrol priorities
Longboat Police’s marine team is focused foremost on educating people. As Connors said, they aren’t out to get anyone. They generally distribute warnings and administer short lectures on rules and safety like what, exactly, a no-wake zone means: motoring slow enough to keep the vessel's bow pushing through the water, not riding on top.
Longboat Key marine officers have a large coverage area – approximately 20 square miles – and not a lot of people to cover it.
Marine officers are also attuned to more dangerous situations. With winter comes harsher seas, and sometimes little boats try and make a journey above their pay grade.
“In fact, our guys will stop and say, ‘I just wanna let you know it’s small craft warnings out there, are you sure you wanna go out?’” Rubino said. “We can’t stop them from going out, but we gotta let them know the water’s been very rough and your vessel is a little small.”
Despite the warning people will occasionally go out anyway, which is what happened in 2016 when officer Nicholas Reno cautioned “a bunch of kids,” as Rubino put it, against riding out. Their boat capsized, but because Reno kept them in sight, he was able to save the teenagers.
Any abnormality in weather is of course a concern for the marine unit. As is boating in shallow spots and people swimming in boating areas. The FWC takes care of boating under the influence issues, so that is not as much a priority for the Longboat Police. Drinking to excess is something police look out for, though. Connors recounted having to drive a woman to shore on Memorial Day to go to the hospital for that very reason.
Longboat Police will sometimes help Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium with distressed or dead animals out on the water. Connors was called on to retrieve a dead manatee calf from under a residential dock. He couldn’t find the manatee the day before, but he was able to on June 30.
Connors then met Mote staff members, and they loaded the body into their truck.
Keeping an eye out
The unpredictability of marine patrol is embodied by the January helicopter crash a mile off of Anna Maria Island earlier this year. Rubino and Connors both discussed the high-profile incident: While filming a boat from a helicopter, the aircraft took a dive into the water.
“I hear Sarasota Police Department get on the radio and say, ‘We’ll be en route to the helicopter crash off Ana Maria,’” Connors said. “I basically assisted with the cleaning up and locating the downed helicopter on the sonar with the approximate location, gathering debris.”
About a half hour before the crash, Connors saw the same helicopter flying above the boat.