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From Wildfires to Ocean Breakers: Flagler Launches Sea Rescue Unit

| July 5, 2011

The oecean rescue unit's jet ski adds a rapid-response capability that hadn't been available north of the Flagler Beach pier, to the Matanzas inlet. (© FlaglerLive)

More than a year and a half ago residents of Sea Colony were complaining to the county that despite a near-drowning on their beach, the county wasn’t equipped to do much for beach-goers’ safety: no lifeguards, signage, no red-flag, green-flag system. Flagler County Fire Rescue was equipped and trained to do so-called surface-water rescues (lakes, rivers, the Intracoastal), but not ocean rescue—entirely different, more elaborate and demanding capabilities. It would take a policy decision, however, for the county to start up something like an ocean rescue unit.

In January 2010, the county commission gave that directive to the administration. There was little interest in a lifeguard program beyond the $80,000 the county was giving Flagler Beach every year: it wouldn’t be cost effective on sparsely treaded beaches. There was no interest in a flag system, which could implicate the county in liability issues. But there was interest, from county commissioners Barbara Revels and Milissa Holland especially—both having as much affinity for the sea as for land—to go the ocean rescue route.

Over the July 4 weekend, county residents and visitors got a glimpse of that ocean rescue unit for the first time: a $10,000 jet ski, an $11,000 Polaris all terrain vehicle, and four men (or rather three and a half: the fourth isn’t yet certified), heading it up: Mike Pius, Aaron Price, Drew Hardesty and Richard Bennett. Visitors and residents saw the unit in the Flagler Beach parade. A little later, they saw it launch and perform two rescue drills in the ocean, with Bennett as the drowning victim (Bennett is the one still working on his certification).

Not long after those drills, the unit also performed an actual medical call: a young boy had been stung by a jelly fish a half dozen blocks north of 10th Street North. (He was treated and was fine.) The unit was on the beach beginning last Friday through midnight the night of the fireworks, responsible for everything north of the Flagler Beach pier and to the Matanzas inlet. Expect the unit on the sands again every time there’s a large crowd.

The unit: Aaron Price, Mike Pius, Richard Bennett, Drew Hardesty. Click on the image for larger view.
(© FlaglerLive)

“For special events,” Flagler County Fire Rescue Chief Don Petito said on the 4th, when he, too, was on the beach, “we’ll have a team on the beach, but during the normal day when it’s not a special event, when we’re not expecting a large crowd, we’ll be stationed at Station 41 in the Hammock, where the launch point is 16th Road. I don’t know if we’re going to be doing a permanent presence as we are today, but we’re looking at expanding it until we have extra personnel trained and extra equipment located on the beach.”

The Flagler Beach Fire Department has a jet ski, and it has rescuers trained in ocean rescue, but logistics limit the unit’s capabilities, Bennett said. The county unit will add versatility anywhere north of the pier. Tom Gillin, Flagler Beach’s parks and recreation director (and the city’s lifeguard in chief), sees the county’s addition as a necessary plus, echoing what Revels had said in January 2010: county beaches are no longer the sparse venue of her youth, but busy places that, by sheer numbers, mean more incidents.

Pius explains the drill he’d just completed: “Our first priority is having a swimmer with the victim, so what we did was immediately get a swimmer out there. A jet ski will be launched, and that jet ski can then pick up the swimmer. If need be the swimmer can take the victim in, but if you have heavy surf, to where if you have someone who’s already exhausted physically, it may be hard for me to hold this victim with a rope in place and having large surf coming down on our heads, so it may be a little safer in that atmosphere to take a jet ski.”

“I know it looks like we’re having a good time,” Pius continues, “but the thing is that this is just one more facet of all the disciplines we do in rescue. It’s not fun running medical calculations, but we do it. This just happens to be something that’s a little more enjoyable, and it looks fun, but we treat it with the same dedication that we treat knowing our fire behavior in the wildland atmosphere, knowing our building construction, knowing where fire is going to go, knowing the human body and knowing how to treat that.”

Petito is bracing himself for the sort of criticism that’s become virtually automatic these days when public safety or government agencies add visible, and visibly flashy, equipment to their arsenals. An exchange between Bennett and a plumpish, 40ish man on the beach made the point. “New toy?” the man asked, pointing at the red ATV.

“Yes, sir.”

“I thought so. That’s a new toy too?” The man points at the jet ski, out by the breakers. Bennett nods. “I thought so,” the man says, in a tone indicating something less than full approval. “Have fun.”

On the other hand, Bennett said, beach-side residents have also been complimenting the team for merely being on the beach, and beach-goers aren’t shy about summoning it for help.

The ATV unit is essentially an all-terrain ambulance, equipped with most of what an ambulance has, and able to perform all ALS functions—advanced life support, Bennett said. What the unit needs are more personnel able to run it.

Eighteen fire rescue paramedics are trained in surface-water rescue, but “the ocean rescue is a whole different animal,” Bennett said. The two-week training period, conducted at the Freeda Zamba pool and at St. Johns County’s Solomon Center, begins each day with a two-mile swim and other endurance exercises. “Guys went through a lot of training to get to that point. It’s just a lot of training. You’ve got to build up to a certain level. Ocean obviously is much more dangerous than the Intracoastal per se.” Flagler has a cooperative agreement with St. Johns, which provided the training at no cost. “There’s a lot of work that goes into being on this team, and there’s a lot of people that won’t even be able to make the swims,” Bennett said.

“You have to qualify,” Petito said. “You have to be a very strong swimmer.”

Pius, a natural swimmer, is asked if Petito could make it. Pius pauses just a brief moment, for diplomatic effect. “The chief,” he said, “is more suited in a role of administration to keep us safe and funded. We would rather have our chief working his magic in the office.”

Drew Hardesty and Aaron Price, rescuing Richard Bennett in a drill, after Mike Pius had swamp out to to Bennett. (© FlaglerLive)

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19 Responses for “From Wildfires to Ocean Breakers: Flagler Launches Sea Rescue Unit”

  1. Informed says:

    The Flagler Beach Fire Department has their water rescue equipment staffed 24/7 by their personnel at their station I believe. I have watched them numerous times be on the beach in minutes and in the water with their jet ski. Why does Flagler County need to bring equipment to Flagler Beach and leave the Hammock un-covered when Flagler Beach has been doing just fine for years? Seems like a waste of money to me, not to mention those poor people in the Hammock left un-covered while they try to “protect” Flagler Beach?

  2. Steve Wood says:

    The city of Flagler Beach Fire Dept will be taking care of the beach WITHIN the city limits as they have done in the past with the life guards during the day and accepting the role of beach ocean rescuers after the guards leave for the day and are gone after labor day contrary to what Gillin might be thinking. Being as Gillin gets some of his money from the county he must think he has the power to over ride the FBFDs duty to the city by saying they are a necessary plus to the city. They will be used if called and needed to assist in a major beach problem which would be appreaciated. Our boys at the FBFD are more than certified and have been for as long as there has been a FD in this city so there is NO reason to DOUBT their ability to do an ocean rescue as they have done many in the past. The city uses all of the resources in the county during special events so this is just another resource used, NOT A NEEDED necessity asTom Gillin says. And yes I do have a problem with the county sticking their nose into the city services. And the name is Steve Wood.

  3. SSDD says:

    Wow, What a duplication of services… Talk about taxpayer waste… It is my understanding that the Flagler Beach Fire Department also has boats. Is that next on the county’s list? I sure would like to know what Mr. Bennett means by logistical issues that the Flagler Beach units have. Palm Coast has water rescue as well, as I know that they and Flagler Beach have trained together. Where is mention of them? I know what it is, the county doesn’t have things that other departments have and they have to have them otherwise they will be left behind. Guess what, they are behind… Flagler Beach has had water rescue equipment for years and has taken it all over this county as needed. They have assisted the FCSO Sheriff’s Office’s Dive Team on things with their equipment and personnel. Guess that is next, they will all be dive certified so they can say ohhhh look at us… Oh well, waste the money to duplicate services when all you have to do is ask for help, but look at the fires, they waited on doing that too…

  4. John Smith says:

    Funny a month ago they would just call FBFD for help now FBFD has a logistical problem with the beach ramp at 100 and A1A. Sounds like they are the ones with the logistical problem. If I lived in the Hammock I would be concerned my money is being spent on the beaches of Flagler Beach. NOW think about it, if they are on our beach north of the Pier say around 10th st and someone in there district needs help in the water they will have to come back down 10 blks to 100 and A1A then head back north passing the 10th st beach access and go to the Hammock in that 4 wheeler dragging there jet ski. They will say no we will just go up the beach wrong, what about HIGH TIDE they will not have a clear shot to get there. Oh yes that makes sense to me, or wait a minute they will probably Call the guys from FBFD since they will be closer

  5. Mr. PC says:

    Im just glad i dont live in the Hammock where i would have to rely on the county for protection, they would probably be too busy playing big brother to the other cities.

  6. Informed says:

    I just checked their website ( and it shows on their site they have two boats, a jet ski and an ATV. I’m with SSDD, duplication of services and complete waste of tax payer dollars. Expensive toys for 4 people to use. I wonder if their all going to be in the Hammock all the time “ready for action”?

  7. Tax payer of Palm Coast says:

    . The above negative comments are part of the problem, these men and women from the local cities FD and the county FD are out here to help people in need. If all the departments would work together to be one department, all citizens of Flagler would benefit financially with better services and less duplication and due away with from what it sounds like are turf battles. It sounds like if all the firefighters were under one command with one goal in this county they could get more accomplished efficently.

    We waist a lot of money on things i.e.” all the new welcome to the cities sign / monuments popping up all over now, Bunnell , Palm Coast, now Flagler Beach yes they look nice but check out the price tag on them it would make you sick” shouldn’t our safety be up there on the list.

    Proper equipment and manpower might cost extra but if they save the life of 1 child or other family member or friend it makes it all worth it. The Fire/Rescue service is a proactive insurance policy.

    I pay my taxes and live in Flagler County I want the highest level of protection that is possible for my family my, anywhere in the county.

    Speak up Flagler.

  8. David says:

    Taxpayer waste? Will you bah humbugs be singing this tune when these guys risk their lives to save you or your child in the ocean? I doubt it. The stretch of beach north of Flagler Beach into the hammock is what marine rescue will cover. It’s roughly the same area that Flagler County Fire Rescue covers now. Noone and no area in the hammock will be left “uncovered” ever, that’s not how the fire service operates. The units rotate so as to always have an available crew to provide the service they provide for you unthankful people. Flagler Beach Fire Rescue and Flagler County Fire Rescue and Palm Coast Fire Rescue work together all the time under general agreements, that’s how it works. Public safety is the main goal and it’s always done as cheaply and efficiently as possible, that is the mantra. Talk your talk about duplication of services to those people in western Flagler and parts of Volusia who’s homes were destroyed by the fires we just had and tell them you’re pissed about the duplication of services, see what they think about fire departments working together to keep lives and property safe. Quit complaining and go get a job and contribute to the tax structure or something.

  9. palmcoaster says:

    Good idea to protect all beach goers specially children, as long as well managed.
    This is a piece of my taxes that I do not mind to pay for.!

  10. concerned says:

    The people of Flagler Beach have been lied to for years. Its time they know the truth. The city of Flagler Beach is left to be protected by children. Next time you see a Flagler Beach truck go by look at the person driving or the people getting out. You will see a 20 y/o with little to know experience in charge of that unit. As for the beach protection. No one in that fire dept. (Flagler Beach) has the training certification that the county marine rescue crew has. The city is under qualified by far. I watched the county marine unit launch there jet ski with two people and it took them less than 30 seconds and the ski was in the water and already out past the break. I also got to see the disaster that the beach calls an ocaen rescue team launch there jet ski and it was more than embarassing. It took them 6 people and several minutes. It doesn’t take much intelligence to see that Mr. Wood who is affiliated with the FBFD and the other nay sayers are in fear for their dept.’s future. YOU SHOULD BE. The county is more than qualified and staffed to do a better job. They can show the certification, where’s yours Flagler Beach. When the beach was not so busy I guess its was ok to let the children of the FBFD keep an eye on things, but now that the beach is so crowded during the summer I know I want my families safety to be looked after by qualified individuals who arent barely out of fire school and there dept only runs maybe a call or two a day. Lets leave it to the adults and professionals. Lets have more than two kids on a fire truck protecting your city and beaches. GO ahead and stop by the FBFD and see for yourself. They have a lot of fancy equipment and only two kids there to operate it. While your there ask to see their certifications on paper. You wont be impressed or feel safe. Maybe Steve Wood will be there for you to thank for helping keep Flagler Beach so unsafe.

  11. Yogi says:

    “Quit complaining and go get a job and contribute to the tax structure or something.”

    Ain’t that the truth. This news outlet and our local elected representatives constantly remark about ways to bolster up revenues for the benefit of government.

    Everyone wants a reasonable amount of protection and common sense solutions.

    It is a wonder the American civilization ever made it this far without all this wonderful government.

    I’m going out and get one more job so I can pay more taxes so those poor public employees can eat tonight. Maybe 5 jobs will make me patriotic. Wait, I see the crowds running out there looking for those jobs right now!

  12. Ferguson says:

    Including Flagler Beach, Flagler County has over 80 miles of saltwater canal, freshwater, and Ocean front to patrol and protect and you few uninformed naysayers are complaining about a jet ski and a fancy ATV and four guys that are getting FREE training to learn how to better protect you. Are you serious? Flagler County and Flagler Beach help each other with accidents and fires all the time. Are you going to complain about the US Coast Guard getting a new Helicopter and training because you think it might overlap with Flagler County’s Fireflight Helicopter? It’s the same thing. There is overlap. Intra-jurisdictional coverage for Emergency Management is designed this way on purpose. Come on people, there is and will always be an overlap of coverage by EMS and different Fire Departments with mutual aid agreements. This ensures coverage of everyone during any kind of mass casualty incident, disaster or any emergency. Firefighters get trained and retrain all the time so they can remain prepared to protect and save YOU. These people take an oath to save lives and property, how are you going to criticize that? The NIMBY concept that you all live by doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. You will complain about your taxes being spent on continuing to protect the public, until it’s YOU being scooped out of the water by a firefighter or first responder. Your NOT IN MY BACKYARD philosophy is short sighted and would get people killed. Flagler County’s main tourist attraction is it’s waterfront and waterways, how would it look if people started dieing in the water all the time? No one would come to visit, no one would spend money here and we’d be worse off than we already are. Is that what you want? You have to widen your view a bit and try to educate yourself on the issues you feel strongly about.

  13. Steve Wood says:

    Well David and Tax payer it is a turf war but that is not what this is about. It is about what the county says about the FBFD not being able to do there Job at the ocean rescue level. Tax payer you would like to have a combined FD but that is not going to happen and we do not need that to happen. The FDs do work together under a MUTUAL AID agreement and we all work well together it is when you disrespect us at the beach is when I get upset. I said if we need them we will call them no problem and we will work together well. I have a job and I do contribute to the tax structure that is why I have a right to complain just like you. So just get back in your county truck and standby. Give the Beach guys their credit and we will all get along if not I will complain.

  14. David says:

    Chief Wood, I support you and FBFD 100%. I donated about $300 to FBFD VOL. Firefighters in the last drive. I support Flagler Beach Fire Rescue and Flagler County Fire Rescue all the way. Anyone that complains about the price of protection and for our safety has never needed it.
    The beaches will be safe in Flagler Beach and Flagler County.

  15. Confused says:

    I am very confused about the comments. Steve Wood can you please explain to me where the duplication of services are. How many paramedics does the beach have and are able to function as a paramedic. If I remember correctly you are a BLS service. I am sure that FBFR dies a good job, but I would rather have a higher trained person there to save my life or my families lives.

  16. Informed says:

    Confused, that’s a fitting name. You think because the county sent four people to school for a piece of paper that their suddenly experts? The guys at FBFD have bee doing it for years. As for the personnel, I know many of them and know they are highly trained. If you compare areas, Flagler Beach has just as many, if not more fires than the county. Here’s the problem. Flagler County is scared because Palm Coast is choking them out by building stations all around them and slowly pushing them west. As for the BLS comment. I’m not a doctor but I know that unless someone is breathing or has a pulse, all the fancy equipment in the world doesn’t matter. Basic steps first, and if I’m not mistaken there is an ALS ambulance at that station. The last two big fires in the county were in Flagler Beach and nobody was killed and the buildings were standing. That’s more than can be said for a lot of departments. Sounds to me like your an over zealous Flagler County Fire employee trying to bash a stellar agency and I’ll go on record and say its ugly and reflects poorly on your entire agency.

  17. Steve Wood says:

    Just LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT I AM NOT THE CHIEF or the Assistant CHIEF. I am a 19yr volunteer with my certs and have done my time here at the beach for 19 yrs long before the county ever existed. My son is at the station also and he has just celebrated his 20yrs of service to the city also long before the county ever existed. We DO NOT have any untrained personel working at our station, WE DO have state certified personel working there. They maybe young but are more than able to save any life that would come before them. We actually have 2 paramedics working on 2 of the different the shifts and are in the process of getting another 1 so there would be 1 medic on all 3 shifts and get certified as a ALS unit. With the 2 medics on the med unit there is really overkill for 4 medics doing what our guys are doing to help. IT IS FUNNY THOUGH THAT WE ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO DO THE JOB OF SAVING A LIFE WHEN THE MED UNIT HAS BEEN TAKEN OUT OF THE CITY FOR A TRANSPORT TO SOMEWHERE IN THE STATE. WE CAN PRETTY MUCH DO WHAT IS NEEDED UNTIL THEY THE MED UNIT COMES FR
    As concerned says come by the station ask questions see our certs talk to our people and not listen to some disgruntled x employee. We have Lifeguards who turned to the FF life and are more than qualified to help with any training in the water, a piece of paper makes you NO better a life saver. I know for a fact that we have not lost anyone at our times of rescue so that is a mute point about our history and any of the lost ones were gone at the time of rescue.
    You all have misunderstood me, The guys on their team are great guys and I appreaciate what they can do. The problem that upsets me is the disrespect that was pointed at our ocean rescue capabilities and what we can protect. It greatly saddens me when there is any disrespect towards any FF Volunteer or paid as we could all die the same death. Alot of the problems come from the political side. Between the city and the county there are plenty of disgruntled X employees that like to keep STIRRING the pot and getting everyone upset. It all has to do with respect and I felt what was said did not show that to the guys of the city. The citizens of Flagler county are in very good hands whether in the water or on the land by well trained and very qualified people. Lets just show each other that respect.

  18. David w/training says:

    In reference to:
    (You will see a 20 y/o with little to know experience in charge of that unit. As for the beach protection. No one in that fire dept. (Flagler Beach) has the training certification that the county marine rescue crew has. The city is under qualified by far. I watched the county marine unit launch there jet ski with two people and it took them less than 30 seconds and the ski was in the water and already out past the break. I also got to see the disaster that the beach calls an ocaen rescue team launch there jet ski and it was more than embarassing. It took them 6 people and several minutes.)

    I was in the special forces for rescue. We specialized in water/ocean rescue. We were the guys who the seals called for 911. I dont beleive any of the countys guys were there, seeing how the process had a 90% attrition rate (the highest in the military). I was also the one launching the ski and did it with 3 people and under a min.

    If you have any questions or doubts in my or anyones ability please come see us and ask before you ridicule us based on false information.

  19. Informed says:

    Someone told me the other day that the station in the hammock took their only person off of the ladder truck to put this new jet ski in the river when Flagler beach fire department had theirs in already, and then they weren’t able to use their ladder truck for a house fire. Why is the county taking their only ladder truck to play in the river when Flagler Beach is already there?!

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