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FWC officers: Ready in an instant

Protecting Paradise

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Media contact: Katie Purcell

At 9 p.m., the officer backs into his driveway. He signs off on the radio, climbs out of his truck and heads toward his darkened house. When he gets inside, he greets his wife and looks in on his two young children who are already tucked into bed. After changing out of his uniform, he hangs it in its usual spot in the closet. Finally, he showers and warms up his supper.

At the other end of the county, one of his squad mates has just put on her bullet-resistant vest and uniform shirt. After snapping on her duty belt, she goes through the routine of checking her gear. Then she says goodbye to her husband and son and heads out the door to begin her shift. Her plans for the night include working in a wildlife management area where there have been night-hunting complaints.

In the meantime, while the second officer is in the dark woods and the first is getting ready for bed, at just past 11 p.m., their supervisor is awakened from sleep by a ringing phone.

“Lieutenant?” a voice asks. “This is Dispatch. Your squad is heading to work a search-and-rescue and they need you right away.”

After giving a few brief details, the dispatcher disconnects quickly and begins calling others on the radio.

In less than 20 minutes, the lieutenant has grabbed his uniform, always hanging in the same place in his closet, put on his gear, and is pulling out of his driveway in his patrol truck. As he buckles his seat belt, he checks in on the radio and lets Dispatch know he is “10-51” – en route to the scene.

During his drive to the next county – he supervises six officers across two counties – he finds out more about the incident and plans a meeting point with the other two officers.

Situations like this are all too common for officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). They don’t work what most people would call traditional hours. Nor would many aspects of their job be considered traditional. But these roles are necessary.

Many of them are working while we’re sleeping or enjoying a Saturday at a state park or a holiday weekend in a campground.

They may start out their shift thinking they’re going to work on a certain issue, or they may have just finished their regular shift and are at home. But, with a moment’s notice, they are called to assist with an urgent issue, like a search for a missing person.

Many times, FWC officers work with other law enforcement, fire and medical personnel. Typically, the FWC provides the equipment and knowledge of the area, often using their ATVs and airboats to transport the personnel and victims.

Every year, they perform around 1,000 rescues in the woods and on the water. This year, they have been involved in almost 700 so far.

In fact, a scenario like the example above played out in the end of June. FWC officers spent nearly two days working with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and Volusia and Seminole county air support to locate a missing man.

Guss Baker had been missing for several days when FWC officers finally found him shivering in a swamp near the Turkey Island Hunt Camp in Flagler County. The officers warmed him with what they had – their bullet-resistant vests and bug-tamer jackets – for several hours until a helicopter could arrive to lift him out of the swamp.

Last month, after recovering from his ordeal, Baker reached out to the officers to thank them for their actions.

“Those officers saved my life. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn't be here,” Baker said.

FWC officers Lee Lawshe and Rich Wilcox were the ones called upon to help.

“Even if we have a plan in mind, we never really know what we’ll be doing on a given day,” Lawshe said. “We are all willing to respond quickly and do what it takes to get the job done and even save a life.”

From backing into their driveways at home, to hanging their clothes in the same spot after each shift, FWC officers have many habits. These ensure they can be ready as quickly as possible to respond to those after-hours emergencies when every second counts.

When you’re out enjoying all Florida has to offer – whether you’re taking your bow to hunt deer this weekend or are headed to the coast in search of snook – remember to be safe. Wear a life jacket on the water; take a GPS with you into the woods. If you do find yourself in a bad situation, remember that officers with the FWC are trained and prepared. They will do their best to get you and your family to safety.

FWC Facts:
American eels spend 10 to 20 years in fresh or brackish waters only to migrate hundreds of miles to spawn in saltwater in the Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea.

Learn More at AskFWC