Rescue agencies hone open water skills on Gulf

Emergency personnel work on rescue skills in the Gulf of Mexico.

JOHN OSBORNE - Special to The Banner

Emergency personnel work on rescue skills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Emergency personnel work on rescue skills in the Gulf of Mexico.

JOHN OSBORNE - Special to The Banner

Emergency personnel work on rescue skills in the Gulf of Mexico.

When the frantic call crackled over radio channel VHF-21 at the Fort Myers Beach Coast Guard Station on Thursday morning, a dozen agencies acting as one — including the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District — immediately sprang into action.

“Boat collision one-half mile off of Fort Myers Beach Pier…people in the water.”

In the blink of an eye, eight go-fast boats skimmed over the turquoise water at nearly 40 knots each, kicking up long trails of foamy white water in their wakes. Reaching the scene several moments later, rescue divers slapped fins on their feet, pulled masks and snorkels over their faces and fearlessly dove into the brisk waters of the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve the wounded victims bobbing along helplessly in the choppy waves. Providing operational support from above, a Lee County Sheriff’s Office helicopter noisily slashed through the clear blue sky and dropped life-saving flotation devices down to the struggling swimmers below.

It was all in a half-day’s work for the members of the Lee County Marine Emergency Response Team, who on Thursday wrapped up a three-day operation that also included a simulated boat fire and a body-recovery exercise that substituted large sandbags for human beings.

Bonita Springs fire spokeswoman Debbi Redfield said the importance of the emergency maritime exercise couldn’t be underscored enough.

“It’s almost like working brushfires, with mutual aid and assistance,” said Redfield, whose district boasts a 22-foot Boston Whaler to go along with its 19-foot Apex. “We’re always available for anyone in the area who needs our help, and this drill allows us all to get familiar with each other’s equipment and personnel. The worst-case scenario would be to have to do something like this without practicing it first.”

Redfield said Bonita Springs’ geographical location places it squarely in an area that one day might well be forced to deal with a real-life maritime disaster, as opposed to conducting a simple drill.

“There’s so much air traffic over the Gulf, and if there’s a catastrophe where an airliner carrying 200 people goes down in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s going to take all of us out here today to have a good outcome,” she said.

Along with the Coast Guard, the Florida Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Myers Police Department, the Bonita fire district was joined by firefighters from Iona-Macgregor, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, North Fort Myers, Sanibel, North Naples and Charlotte County over the course of the three-day drill.

Bonita fire Lt. Dave Lees echoed Redfield’s sentiments about the importance of the joint maritime operation.

“It’s great,” said Lees, a 22-year veteran firefighter. “This way we can train and prepare in case something real happens. It’s a great way to gain some experience, too. It’s definitely not something we do every day. When we practice together like this, it makes it easier for us to come together when it’s really needed.”

Despite the obvious seriousness of the drill, Lees admitted that he might have had just the smallest bit of fun, too.

“We do enjoy it, that’s for sure,” Lees said with a smile. “It’s good to train and to get out and do stuff that we don’t do every day.”

Standing on the dock at the Fort Myers Beach Coast Guard Station as noisy seagulls circled in the air above, Bonita firefighter/paramedic Scott Lyons agreed with his co-worker.

“It’s just good to get together with the other departments like this,” said Lyons, a five-year veteran of the district who once played defensive end for Florida State University. “It’s better to work together during a drill than to get together for the first time during a real incident with boats that we haven’t worked with before.”

Lt. Richie Scott, the driving force behind water-rescue training for the Bonita fire district and other areas throughout Lee County and beyond, said his team tries to train weekly in anticipation of a maritime disaster.

“I started the surface-water rescue program in Bonita about 10 years ago, and I’ve also done a lot of training for a lot of the districts in Lee County, including North Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel,” said Scott, a 16-year veteran of the district who was promoted to lieutenant five years ago. “Some of the drills we did these past three days are the same drills that we’ve been doing for years, and it’s really neat that it’s happening in all of these different departments now. This way, when we go to do a real call or training exercise, we’re all on the same page as far as the basics, the objective and the plan.”

Reach John Osborne at johnaosborne@hotmail.com.

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