MARCO ISLAND — Marco Island's police and fire departments take seriously their responsibility to keep Islanders safe. What happened – and what didn't happen – locally during the passing of then Tropical Storm Isaac, and what did happen around New Orleans and the northern Gulf coast when then Hurricane Isaac came ashore, point out that the officials entrusted with public safety have to plan for worst case scenarios.
"I've seen a picture circulating on the internet," said Police Chief Don Hunter after Isaac. "It shows a sign saying 'Storm Isaac – Never Forget,' and a photo of one lawn chair blown over."
Assistant Police Chief Dave Baer said that a near-miss like the island had with Isaac can be dangerous the next time a tropical system threatens. People who downplayed the danger feel vindicated, and those who did prepare may feel burned.
"Those who put up shutters may say, 'What did I do that for?' when the truth is, we just never know," said Baer. The police department did incur overtime in preparing for the storm, he said.
"We brought in reserves and auxiliary officers. We burn extra fuel," he said. Baer also emphasized that residents need to take precautions for their own safety, and not depend solely on law enforcement.
In addition to officers on the island doing tasks such as pulling boats out of the water, the department sends a liaison to the Collier County Emergency Operations Center, located off Lely Cultural Parkway in East Naples, to help coordinate the broader effort of disaster preparedness and recovery. Detective Joe Mack was the officer sent by the MIPD.
The Marco Island Fire-Rescue Dept. also participates in the EOC, with Rescue Lt. James Jay the fire squad's point man at the county. The departments coordinate, said Baer, to allow the EOC to be staffed 24-hours a day during times of threat.
Jay had just returned from an emergency call on the department's Tower 50 truck when asked about emergency operations during the storm.
"Somebody fell," he said briefly, about the call. "Usually, they're routine like that."
At the EOC, said Jay, every agency and stakeholder in the county is represented. "There's somebody from everybody – not just police and fire, but the park service, power companies, cable, telephone and sheriff's office," he said.
The uncertain nature of what shape an emergency helps shape the budget requests the departments make from city government. For the coming fiscal year, the police department has requested additional officers, and the fire department's wish list prominently featured a new boat.
"The Chief did a study of officers on the street" versus historical levels, said Baer. "Our patrol staffing now emulates the patrol staffing for the Sheriff's Office in 1999," before the island had its own police force.
In 1999, he said, the CCSO had 25 deputies patrolling Marco Island.
"We got to 26 in 2002, total officers, including chief and command staff," said Baer. "It took till 2007 to have the same number of patrol folks." Chief Hunter's concept, he said, would provide some savings by cutting overtime, as well as allowing the department to operate more efficiently by having a new "flexible operations group" available to cover for officers on training, and perform a wide variety of policing functions.
Hunter told the City Council that adding the officers might paradoxically contribute to an increase in the local crime rate, as crimes are brought to light and prosecuted, rather than going undetected.
The possible new fire-rescue boat, with a $75,000 budget request for the first year's lease, but an eventual cost of $450,000 over seven years, was a source of contention as the city council considered spending priorities. The steel-hulled vessel with a Diesel jet drive, built for the tasks it would be called on to perform, is necessary for an island city, said Councilor Jerry Gibson.
"This has been investigated for five years," said Gibson. "Before I was on the council they were trying to get a proper fireboat." He pointed to the recent boat fire at Caxambas Pass as an example of the inadequacy of the current equipment.
Councilor Bill Trotter spoke against the expenditure.
"I don't see the need for a $450,000 boat," he said. "My concern is we'll become the Coast Guard of Southwest Florida, several miles out, rescuing people who may not even be Marco residents."
The City Council has until the end of September to finalize the budget, and therefore the millage rate, for the coming fiscal year.