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Non-emergency calls for aid on the water increasing

Captiva Island Fire Control District provides direction for boaters on when to call 911 -- or someone else

By TIFFANY REPECKI - | Aug 10, 2022

Experiencing a growing uptick in non-emergency calls on the water, the Captiva Island Fire Control District is offering guidance for boaters on what situations do and do not necessitate dialing 911.

Fire Chief Jeff Pawul explained that the islands and Lee County are witnessing an increase in boating activity as the number of registered boats continues to rise, which has been documented statewide.

In March, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced that the number of registered recreational vessels across Florida had passed the 1 million mark and the state continues to lead the nation. Lee came in as the third top county in Florida with 50,304 total registered vessels.

Pawul reported that what goes along with that is a rise in inexperienced or uneducated boaters.

“You’ve got a lot of first-time boaters out there who don’t know the water, or maybe they’re used to smaller boats on a lake and they’ve moved up to a larger cruiser,” he said, adding that it applies to boat rentals. “This isn’t just specific to new owners or those from out of town. This is also a rental issue.”

As a result, the district and other area agencies have been fielding non-emergency calls for aid.

“The sheriff’s department, they have boats on the water full-time in Lee County, so they run the calls that we do,” Pawul said. “We work in unison with them. I know they see the same types of calls.”

He provided an overview of what situations do not warrant calling 911.

“The number one we get that would normally be a non-911 emergency call is a boat stuck on a sandbar,” Pawul said.

He compared the situation to getting a flat tire on the side of the road. Drivers do not call 911 for assistance. In the same manner, boaters should contact a service, like SeaTow or TowBoatUS.

“If it’s something where you ran aground, and people might have fallen inside the boat and gotten injured, of course call 911,” Pawul said. “Your boat is not our emergency, the people on it are.”

“But if it’s something like you weren’t watching the tide or charts and ran aground,” he added. “The fire district nor the sheriff’s department is going to come and tow you off a sandbar because you’re stuck.”

Because of the time of year, calls for another type of non-emergency situation have increased.

“Weather is probably the other biggest one we’ve seen lately,” Pawul said. “People get stuck in a thunderstorm or lighting storm, and they call us to come and get them.”

He noted that the district will do what it can and try to help if possible.

“But if it’s not safe for you to be out there, then it’s probably not safe for us to be out there,” Pawul said. “Don’t be surprised if we’re not able to come.”

Another non-emergency situation is when the boat runs out of fuel.

“We’re not bringing you fuel,” he said, adding that boaters again need to contact a service.

Pawul explained that another non-emergency is boaters who notice their boat may be taking on water, usually while shored on a beach or sandbar. It is a maintenance issue, not an emergency situation.

“If your boat is actually sinking, yes, then we’re going to come and help you,” he said.

Pawul provided additional examples of emergency situations that warrant contacting 911.

“Somebody is injured. Boat crashes — definitely call. Your boat is on fire, or you think that your boat is on fire,” he said. “Any type of hazard or medical emergency, just like you would call on land.”

To help avoid an emergency situation and create a safer experience, Pawul offered up some tips.

“Be as educated as possible on the water and on the boat you are operating, whether that’s boating safety courses or being familiar with the charts and the area you’re navigating,” he said. “We have some of the most challenging waterways there are with the shifting sandbars and tides and the channels.”

“Make sure you have a sober operator,” Pawul added. “There’s lots of drinking on the water, which is fine, but make sure — just like in a car — whoever is operating the boat is not drinking.”

“And be a safe and consciousness driver and operator,” he said.