Gasparilla Island and its surrounding waters have thousands upon thousands of visitors every year who come for the fishing, the boating and the beaches.
Out of those thousands of people we are blessed every year that our accident and drowning numbers remain very low, particularly considering the Boca Grande Fire Department has responded to 22 water rescue calls since January of this year.
We have, tragically, had some instances recently when people have lost their lives or been injured in the last few years, even with some of the most modern technology and capable first responders in the state.
But how do you search an area where there are rarely any landmarks?
A water search varies dramatically from a land search and rescue call for that very reason, particularly when many of the responding units are from other areas and not familiar with our local waters.
An idea was hatched this year by our own fire department that all of Southwest Florida and the United States Coast Guard stations in our area are currently using that is already saving lives. A new grid system is in place that is similar to the game Battleship.
All of the coastal waters between Charlotte County and Collier County have been broken down into one-mile squares and named with a letter and a number.
Boca Grande Fire Chief C.W. Blosser explained the new system, and how it differs from the old one.
“We used to have marine response zones, and we had the zones broken up so that each zone showed departments that had boats that could respond,” he said, “but we would just be looking in a large, general area.”
“Sometimes we would even get coordinates, but they weren’t always good. So we had big, massive areas we were responsible for. Our firefighters have talked about how inefficient this seems since last year, and they came up with a grid system.”
Blosser said while there’s already a national grid system in effect now, instead of a number for a zone they take it a step further.
Each of the large zones are given a letter name, and then broken down even further into one-mile squares that have number names.
For instance, Charlotte County has a lot of “A” and “B” squares with a few “C” and “D” squares thrown in. Lee County has the “E,” “F,” “G,” H” and “K” squares, with the “I” and “J” squares covering the river. Now search and rescue responders have a much more precise location to start their search from. They are given the latitude and longitude of each square’s center, so they can start from there and work their way out until their search of that square mile is complete.
Then they move on to the next.
One of the primary catalysts for this new system stemmed from a call last June that has bothered Blosser and his firefighters very much.
The call came in as a man who had been swept away in a rip current off “Lighthouse Beach.” You might ask, which one? That’s the same question the firefighters had to answer – and quickly.
Javier Castro, a 22-year-old man from Cape Coral, had just helped his younger siblings to shore after they were stranded on a sand bar just off Range Light Beach. The current was swift and the water between land and the sand bar was over their heads by the time they realized they were in trouble.
A Good Samaritan on a jet ski took the younger children to shore, but when he returned for Javier just minutes later he had disappeared.
The call for help went out, but no one was completely sure where to start looking. The caller simply said it was “the beach off the lighthouse.”
Javier was never found. His family is destroyed, and searched for him for months after that day.
Searchers who came that day have always been haunted by the fact they couldn’t give the Castro family more closure in the incident.
“We had to tell the rescuers coming up from the south the lighthouse we were talking about was a tall metal structure, not the lighthouse at the Pass, and we had nothing but a general area to give them because the current was moving so swiftly. The more boats you have responding to a call, the more areas there are to assign and it becomes even more cumbersome,” Blosser said.
Blosser and Lt. Mike D’Angelo took a computer graphic created by the firefighters and administrative assistant Nancy Coleman and presented it to Lee County.
From there it was given to Amy Hoyt, Lee County’s Geographic Information System Manager, and she created an entire application – complete with overlays of water depth and more – for smart phones and iPads.
The application is growing every day, and now includes the locations of docks where boats can drop off injured people, as well as fuel docks.
The program has been in use for a few months now and it is being used every day.
Capt. Tim Barrett of the Sanibel Fire Department said he was incredibly happy when the new system was introduced.
Not only does it save lives, he said, it also saves them time and manpower when water rescue calls come in.
“We’re going out on average about once a day, from Boca Grande clear down to Collier County,” he said. “We have a department very much like Boca Grande has, and when I send people out on these calls I am losing half my department to that call. This makes it a lot more efficient.”
D’Angelo said this eases the mind of his first responders as well, particularly when they are dealing with a response time that could be up to 20 minutes.
“That day when we lost Javier we were so disappointed, and then we immediately got another call south of us where a sailboat was found and the people were missing and we went through the same thing again,” he said. “It was frustrating, particularly since we’re used to three or four minute response times on land. We’d had this idea up on our board for months, and each shift added a little more to it … it meant that much to us.”
Lee County is working every day to make the system better and more efficient, and in Florida – in a world full of water and hundreds of thousands of people in Southwest Florida who spend time around the water every day – that’s a truly wonderful thing.