Marco Island firefighter: 'This is what we signed up for'
Marco Island Fire-Rescue personnel respond to a call of a bicyclist struck by a vehicle on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Lisa Conley/Naples Daily News
Editor's note: This is the second of a two part series on the experiences of Marco Island's first responders during Hurricane Irma. The first installation appeared online and in print in the Marco Eagle on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
A shrieking alarm pierced the air of the Marco Island fire station just as a group of firefighters were sitting down to talk about their Hurricane Irma experiences. All of the men leaped to their feet in an instant, and dashed out the conference room door without a second thought. They grabbed their equipment, hopped into the fire engines and were speeding toward the scene of the call less than five minutes after the alarm rang.
Although the incident turned out to be minor – a biker was clipped by a car but was, for the most part, okay – the firemen treat every call as if it’s life-threatening, and it’s exactly that type of mindset and preparedness that helped them weather one of the fiercest hurricanes in Florida history.
The department’s preparations for the storm began with public outreach; Marco Island Fire-Rescue (MIFR) Chief Mike Murphy conveyed to residents the severity of the hurricane, and urged them to heed any and all evacuation notices.
"This hurricane we're dealing with is Hurricane Andrew on steroids," Murphy said during the Sept. 5 City Council meeting. "If there is a place for you to go off island, out of the flood zone area, you need to do so now."
Then came the logistics of getting ready for a storm of Irma’s magnitude.
“A week before the storm was a lot of prep work,” Dustin Beatty, MIFR captain, said. “We had generators being filled, equipment and supplies being delivered (and) apparatus and staff being moved around.”
During the storm the station lost power, so MIFR personnel had to keep a physical log of the calls they received when it was too dangerous for them to leave the station.
“Because of the power outages, fire alarms and security alarms and panic alarms were going off," Beatty said, "but we couldn’t go out until the wind died down."
However one call they received during the storm was much more serious than just a malfunctioning alarm.
“We had a guy that decided to move his car during the storm and got stuck, so he called us but at that time there were 80 mph winds, so we couldn’t go out,” MIFR firefighter Jesse Yarnell said, noting that the department’s firetrucks can only handle sustained winds of 45 mph or less. “So he actually waited in his car the whole storm.”
Luckily, and perhaps miraculously, the man survived the storm, and once the wind let up the firefighters were able to respond to the other calls; of course, navigating the island immediately following the hurricane's landfall was still difficult even without the wind.
“We also had a lot of power lines down and we treat every power line like it’s live whether it is or not," Beatty said. "Plus the water was pretty high."
That water, which was two to three feet high in some areas, became a major fear for residents.
“There was a family that had their dogs and birds and suitcases and everything ready to go and they were worried about the water coming up and flooding them out of their house, but at that time the water was actually receding,” Beatty said. “So we just had to educate them on what the water was doing … and didn’t actually have to pull them out of the house.”
There were no fatalities or even serious injuries on island, and although the Marco Island Police Department credits that to the large number of residents who evacuated prior to the storm, MIFR personnel said even more people should have evacuated, and they hope they will the next time a hurricane hits.
“We had a lot of people leave, but we also had a lot of people who stayed,” Yarnell said.
Many of the firefighters had evacuated their own families, either off the island or out of the state, which was both a blessing and a curse.
"You're definitely torn; you want to check on them as soon as possible but you still have a responsibility here," Beatty said. "You can't just drop everything here and go."
"This is what we signed up for," Yarnell added.