Elite Unit Embraces Task Of Patrolling Waterways
By Brevard County Sheriff // April 21, 2013
(IMAGES BY JOHN EGAN)
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Protecting Brevard County’s natural resources, its waterways and their endangered inhabitants is an elite unit of the Brevard County’s Sheriff’s Office, the men and women of the BCSO Agricultural and Marine Unit.
From canoes, to personal watercraft, kayaks, sailboats, luxury yachts, cruise ships and commercial vessels, Brevard County’s 72 miles of coastline and two intracoastal waterways with numerous tributaries is a mariner’s and angler’s delight.
But it is the duty of the deputies of the Agricultural and Marine Unit to ensure the safety of every mariner on these vast waterways, through enforcement of marine laws and ordinances.
They investigate boating accidents, respond to distress calls, conduct boat safety inspections and provide boat safety classes.
The Marine unit fleet consists of three inshore boats, two 21-foot Boston Whalers and one 24-foot Mako.
Deputies also have an offshore 31-foot SAFE BOAT made by the SAFE boat corporation and two 500-horsepower water thunder airboats as well as an additional airboat operated by a reserve deputy that patrols the freshwater areas..
With more than 39,000 registered power boaters here including commercial vessels, countless numbers of vessels from out of town, recreational fishermen and family weekend boaters, one would be surprised as just how many novice and experienced boaters alike are oblivious to the requirements for basic safety equipment and the navigational laws of the county.
I learned this as I accompanied Brevard County’s Agriculture and Marine Unit’s Deputy Sheriff Evan “Brent” Hightower on an afternoon patrol
“Slow no wake manatee area” signs were posted in clear large legible letters, but were ignored by several boaters.
In the distance, Deputy Hightower observed a small boat in the Manatee Zone at the junction of the Banana River and the Barge Canal.
“I see the boat is plowing, their bow is out of the water and this restricts their visibility. The bow of the boat is pushing the water out ahead of it and creating a wake in a protected zone.”
We came alongside, our starboard side to their port side.
“I do this for safety, it is my choice being right handed,” said Hightower. “Boaters instinctively turn to their starboard (their right side) when approached and this avoids any contact with the suspected violator’s craft.”
As on the highway when a police vehicle activates their emergency blue lights, Hightower turns on his flashing lights. It alerts the vessel’s operator to move to the side and allow them through or stop if the officer so indicates.
Making A Stop
The same applies, when a Sheriff’s Department boat activates their lights on the waterways.
“Many boaters are not aware of this,” said Hightower. “Emergency lights are the same on the waterways as on the highways. The waterways are our highways.”
This time the vessel’s operator that was plowing was not cited, but was informed by Deputy Hightower of the speed limitations in the area and given a pamphlet which defined the restrictions in specific zones.
Shortly thereafter, Hightower observes a group of fishermen in a small boat crossing the Manatee Zone en route to their boat ramp.
“Their boat is up on plane in the Manatee Zone,” said Hightower. “This is very common in this area because they are headed toward their boat ramp.”
As we approached the boat, Hightower observed several fish on board the fishermens’ vessel.
“There are two redfish and four trout,” said Hightower. “I checked the fish for size and amount and the fisherman for his license and there were no violations. I showed them how to properly measure their fish and avoid any problems later on and informed them of the Manatee zone. I conducted a safety equipment check of their boat and they were on their way.”
After establishing my sea legs and returning to terra firma, I had the pleasure of meeting Deputy Sheriff John Straus as he conducted a boating safety class to a group of kindergarten students at Fairglen Elementary School in Cocoa.
An 11-year veteran of Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, for the past six years Deputy Straus has been assigned to the BCSO Agriculture and Marine Unit, patrolling in a 22-foot Boston Whaler from Sebastian Inlet north to the Pineda Causeway
“Boating safety is my responsibility,” said Straus. “My concerns are life jackets for kids, registration issues, derelict vessels, three of which are currently under investigation in my sector, Manatee Zone violations, water-skiing problems, personal watercraft education and above all, safe boating education.”
Part of a safe boating program designed for the youngsters, Deputy John, as the kindergarten students call him, also operates another vessel called “Bobby the Boat.”
It’s a remote-controlled model boat with all the bells and whistles literally and a siren too. Bobby is placed in a classroom for students and Deputy John (with a special intercom and remote controller) is in another room.
Bobby says hello and asks questions, spins around, flashes its lights, sounds the siren and spays a stream of water to the excitement of the children and adults too.
“It is great how the youngsters enjoy Bobby,” said Straus. “It is a perfect tool to instill boat safety at an early age.”
He said that during a typical boat safety class he asks students what they would do in a water emergency.
“And not surprisingly many youngsters know what to do,” he said. “I display cushions, surf boards and large thermos containers. These are items which can be used to keep someone afloat. They know to either throw it to the individual or extend a float to them.
“I ask them if would like to be a super hero and save someone’s life,” Straus said. “There are four ways to be a super hero I tell them. First is to reach out something, second to throw something that floats, third to know how to call 911, and fourth to get an adult. Reach, Throw, Know, Go.”
He tells the students that when it comes to life vests, one size does not fit all.
“It is very important that the life vest you have for your children fits snugly and all the snaps are secure,” Straus said.
During a classroom demonstration Deputy Straus showed how a large improperly fitted life vest was easily pulled over the head of a young student.
A humble hero himself, Deputy Straus was on patrol about eight months ago near the Sebastian Inlet.
“I remember it was a quiet Sunday morning on the Indian River, Straus said.” I just so happened to see a flash of orange. I stopped the boat and took out my binoculars. I observed a capsized canoe and an older couple who were just barely holding on to it.
“They were wearing their vests, but they were not completely secured,” he said. “They were just hanging on and eventually would have become tired and hypothermic. They were very grateful when I got them on board. They sent a nice letter to Sheriff Jack Parker. I was grateful too for being at the right place at the right time.”
In 2011, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Agricultural and Marine unit handled more than 3,000 calls for service and issued 98 marine citations and 34 traffic citations.
There also were 71 misdemeanor arrests and 21 felony arrests made by the unit last year.
And unit deputies initiated 20 new derelict vessel cases so the boats can be removed from the waters of the Indian and Banana Rivers.
The Ag & Marine Unit also has been called to assist in the escort of naval subs and cruise ships in and out of Port Canaveral.
“Patrol areas are countywide,” said Brevard County Sheriff Sergeant Byron Keck, the supervisor of the Brevard County Sheriff Office Agriculture and Marine unit. “We patrol from the Indian River County to the south and east to Sebastian Inlet and north to the Volusia County line and west to Orange and Osceola counties along the St Johns River.”
Along with their array of specialized vehicles and vessels to accomplish their mission, deputies from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Department Ag & Marine Unit typically get to wear ”Class B” uniforms which are sturdier version of regular uniforms.
Those uniforms are worn because of the amount of dirt, mud and grease unit members come in contact with and shoes also are waterproof.
For more than 23 years, Sergeant Keck has been on active reserve with the U.S. Coast Guard holding the rank of Chief Bos’un Mate and is a 17-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office.
“I started out as a road deputy doing patrol work for about seven to eight years and then I was assigned to the Marine unit as a deputy for four years. I was promoted to sergeant and returned to road patrol. A short time later I was fortunate to return to the Marine unit as a supervisor.”
He said he enjoys the work as difficult as it may be.
“I have always had love for boats and the Coast Guard and my experiences with the Coast Guard led me in the direction of the Marine unit,” Keck said. “I really enjoy working outside and doing this type of work. In the Marine unit there is always something different. And that is law enforcement in general. You never know what you’re going to get in to. Out on the water you are dealing a lot with recreational boaters. Then all of a sudden you may get a search and rescue call and respond often in the middle of the night or during a storm. The job is challenging and exciting and especially rewarding. As it was that on that Sunday morning rescue by Deputy John Straus.”
Keck said citations issued on the water would more than likely result from a vessel safety inspection.
“A citation could be issued because of lack of proper safety equipment, most often no or improper life jackets on the vessel. We issue a lot of warnings for other safety violations, but we are pretty strict when it comes to life jackets,” Keck said. “Citations may also be issued for violation of a slow speed zone or careless/reckless operation. A traffic citation would be a speeding violation, equipment violation or anything else on the road. We stop cars also if we see them violating the traffic laws.”
“A citation could be issued because of lack of proper safety equipment, most often no or improper life jackets on the vessel. We issue a lot of warnings for other safety violations, but we are pretty strict when it comes to life jackets.”
Keck said most of the felony arrests the unit had last year resulted from either armed trespassing cases while patrolling private property or sometimes drug arrests where illegal substances were discovered on boaters after a deputy made contact with them for something else.
“We also investigate some of the boat thefts so sometimes these investigations result in felony arrests,” he said. “We worked a dog fighting case which was a felony charge as well. Misdemeanor arrests involve simple trespass cases, as well as some of the resource violations such as improper means of taking fish or wildlife, over the limit, out of season etc.”
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Agriculture and Marine division began in 1960 as a one-deputy citrus and cattle unit. A marine division was separate, but was combined with the agriculture unit in 1973.
Boating patrol is just one aspect of their mission which includes enforcement of hunting and fishing laws, assisting other agencies in the sheriff’s department, stakeouts, transporting homicide agents to remote crime scenes and helping detectives search for bodies and evidence.
They also may be pressed into action to help track down overdue boaters, prevention of illegal dumping, locate lost hunters or find fleeing suspects.