Protecting Broward County Waters

Photojournalism By Gini McKain

Broward County Sheriff's Office has more than 6,300 employees, approximately 2,800 certified deputies. Broward County, Florida also has the unique distinction of over 1300 square miles of land in the southeastern portion of the Florida peninsula, sandwiched between Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County. Both counties contributed nearly equal portions of land to create it in 1915. Of that dedicated land, about two-thirds or 847 square miles (2,194 km2) in the most western portion, lie in an undeveloped fragile eco-system called the Florida Everglades Conservation Area, which the Broward County Sheriff's Office has under its jurisdiction. Airboats are the most logical, if the only way of patrol, for the grandfathered-in camps and for security if a boating, or aircraft accident should occur.

Since 1991, the Sheriff's Office has provided law enforcement services for Port Everglades, from the far east, to the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. This 2,380 acre deep water harbor is the 12th largest cargo container port in the nation, and has over 12 cruise ship terminals (largest cruise ship port in the nation), with another terminal under construction to compliment the berth of the largest cruise ship in the world, still being built. It also has a major storage and distribution site for petroleum and propane with over 250 large fuel tanks on land. The jurisdiction encompasses 2,190 upland (dry dockside) acres, and 448 acres of submerged land. This submerged land is continually patrolled by a new portable marine command vessel for the safety of the thousands of cruise ship tourists, valuable cargo freighters, and highly important fuel laden ships and barges.

There are at least 14 incorporated cities and towns in the eastern portion of the region, along with all of Broward's unincorporated areas (1/3rd of the county) under the Sheriff's Office full-time law enforcement services. With the Office's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, known to many as the 'Venice of America' with its miles of canals and multi-million dollar homes, BSO's Marine Unit is a very important part of the Broward County Sheriff's Office.

Marine Unit

Marine Patrol and the Dive Rescue Team in Cities and Populated Areas

Fully water integrated, the Broward County Marine Unit consists of the Marine Patrol and the Dive Rescue Team. The unit consists of one sergeant, six county marine deputies, one Manatee Protection Patrol deputy, (funded by the Environmental Services), and a marine mechanic. All Marine Patrol deputies are certified public safety divers, and part of the county’s 35 man Dive Team pooled throughout the agency.

The Unit's primary responsibility is the safety of the residents of Broward County within its waterways, while promoting boating safety through boating education and high-visibility patrol. The unit does a lot with less to about 50,000 registered boaters in the county and many thousands more who bring their own boat to fish in tournaments, just fish the beautiful waters, or to enjoy any other kind of recreational boating and cruising.

According to Sergeant Carlos Carrillo of the Unit, "they enforce marine laws and ordinances, investigate boating accidents and related crime scenes, and participate in marine enforcement operations targeting human and narcotic smuggling."

Having recently experience a full fledge hurricane in Fort Lauderdale not long ago, the Marine Patrol Unit is also responsible for the county's hurricane flotilla plan, guiding thousands of vessels to safe harbor when severe weather conditions threaten the county. They have a full complement of vessels to accomplish this, including a 41-foot RIB, christened the Deputy Philip G. Billings.

The Dive Rescue Team's primary responsibility is emergency water rescue. It conducts underwater crime scene investigations, recovery operations, and sea wall and hull searches to locate underwater explosive devices at Port Everglades. In 2008 alone, the Dive Rescue Team conducted 197 dive missions. Members are equipped with vulcanized rubber dry suits, a full face mask to protect them from underwater elements, and utilize wireless communications to maintain constant audio contact with other divers and surface support personnel. A full cadre of tools including underwater digital video, side scan sonar, 360-degree sonar unit, side imaging systems, ROV, and underwater metal detectors are towed to a scene when needed, as explained by Sgt. Carrillo.

He also said that his people find the work very rewarding and they love the interaction with the people, along with the love of boating. One deputy has not taken this statement lightly given his experience in March of 2008.

Deputy Sam Lapinsky of the Marine Unit - Dive Rescue Team participated in a 31-year-old missing person case. Periodically, the team will side scan (with sonar) for submerged vehicles in the one to four mile long canals within city or town limits. As a matter of procedure, targets are noted and the information taken to the office for evaluation and data processing. A plan is implemented to identify, and remove specific targets if determined to be submerged vehicles.

In this four mile long canal, up to 200' wide in locations, and 18 feet deep, out of 70 determined targets, three were under an existing bridge in Coral Springs, along the C-14 canal by the 100 Block of Coral Ridge Drive. About fourteen vehicles were recovered and extracted, by the time the three targets were assessed and determined to be vehicles under the bridge.

A tow truck was placed on the bridge over the targets, with one being an old deteriorated 1970's van, older than the others. As soon as the car was being pulled, and moved gingerly, an ID card floated to the surface. It was quickly retrieved and given to an on shore deputy who radio teletyped the identification. He was told that the person belonging to that ID was a "missing person" from 31 years ago! Now being wary, another chain was attached to the frame of the submerged old rusted and deteriorated van to increase the chances of a successful in-tact extraction.

Once the van was on the bridge, after being lifted and set down while swiftly crumbling into pieces, another deputy noticed what he thought was a human bone laying beside the crumpled van. Upon closer inspection, other bones were located inside the motor vehicle.

Coral Springs Police officers maintained traffic control on the bridge for the operation, and regularly work alongside the Broward County Sheriff's Office deputies whenever needed in Coral Springs. The information spread within the departments, and soon, a female Coral Springs officer came to the scene to say the deceased was her brother, named Jeffery Klee!

The Coral Springs Crime Scene Unit came out to process the incident, according to Deputy Lapinsky, but the Dive Unit worked for three more days recovering approximately 75% of the remains, along with assorted personal effects, which included tape decks, a cane, and comb. The utility boat used is their 17', "Rescue One Connector Boat", (Rescue One is the name of the manufacturer).

Through the Broward County Sheriff's deputies efforts in the recovery, it was later determined that the victim was murdered, put into the van, and then pushed into the canal under the bridge. The person who committed the crime was identified, but has not been prosecuted as of this date.

"This is one of the most rewarding types of projects that we do, because it brings closure to the families involved," said Deputy Sam Lapinsky. "So far, it appears that one out of every hundred cars recovered have body remains in them. A large portion of the other vehicles is discarded for insurance fraud, and a smaller percentage of vehicles have been illegally stripped for parts. This is just a small portion of our job in a very large system of water throughout the county. But it is important to help reduce poisonous acids, fuel & oil contamination, and pollution in our recreationally used waterways."

Marine Patrol in the Florida Everglades

At the western part of the county is the Broward County Conservation Area broken up into 4 parcels that incorporate 400,000 acres of the Everglades. This river of grass is overseen by several entities including the South Florida Water Management Authority, Miccosukee Tribe of Florida in the south and the Seminole Tribe in the north, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, (state and federal), and the Department of Environmental Protection agencies.

In all four zones, there are about 100 hunting camps, which can change ownership, but no new ones added. These camps are periodically checked to make sure everything is all right, as well as making sure there are no environmental hazards. Airboats and regular boats are safety checked, as well as for hunting or fishing violations. If a serious offense takes place, the Fish and Wildlife agency can be called in if time or communications permit.

Two different airboats are at their disposal, one being a 16' Diamond Back, with 497 GM motor of 497HP featuring counter rotating carbon fibre rotating props. The airboat is simply but efficiently equipped with satellite phone, VHF radio, LGC-3000 Lowrance GPS, epirb, two days worth of food and water, along with medical safety gear, and plenty of gear for boat extraction from any unforeseen circumstances for theirs, or anyone else's boat.

Patrols are done whenever possible, with no specific dedicated schedule. Airboat trails, and sloughs (access trails) are many, with people bringing in markers of all sorts to help make it easier to find the different camps. Knowledge of the area is probably the most important "gear" to bring along to the area, as Deputy Alexander Jacobi can attest. He has been patrolling the region frequently as a nine-year veteran with the Office.

Port Everglades

Security from a Mobile Marine Command Boat to security with a SWAT team looking for submersed explosives

The Broward County Sheriff's Office, and the United States Coast Guard have the jurisdiction for the massive Port Everglades established in 1927 as an agricultural port for local citrus and produce farmers. After WWII, the massive influx of people made the Port necessary to bring in food, and building materials for the thousands of new homes, and businesses serving the major increase in population, where former service men and their families remember the area inviting and sunny.

Now BSO provides law enforcement services with specialized resources such as the Harbor Patrol, Investigations Unit, Bomb Detection and a K-9 Unit, allowing the Office to provide full service to the visitors and businesses that travel into or conduct commerce there. It is necessary to secure the waterborne commerce, exceeding 23 million tons in liquid, bulk, and containerized cargoes, which bring in annual operating revenues of more than $66 million.

Port Everglades is garnered as the "world's best cruise port", with more than 5,300 diverse ships coming in annually, and even making the Port a U.S. Navy liberty destination favorite. A somewhat misnomer, this haven is primarily in three cities, City of Hollywood with about five times the amount of acreage as the other Cities of Fort Lauderdale and Dania. Its initial and continued attraction is the large secure open storage space for all the cargo, fuel, and passenger ship requirements. The port is still updating its master plan to ensure continued growth and success through the coming years by staying at the cutting edge of technology and service.

This effort comes at a price to the Broward County Sheriff's Office, but the Office is also keeping up with the security needed, (with the help of Homeland Security funds), by recently adding another boat to their inventory of two able 26' boats, and a 34' Safeboat.

The new, not off the shelf 43' SAFE Boat, is their Mobile Marine Command Vessel that can be used for supplementary emergencies, as well. It will work with the USCG, other adjoining county offices, and the Regional Domestic Security Task Force. Patrolling about seven miles of dockage in port, between the North, Mid and South port areas along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 45 mph+ capable boat has its work cut out for tour of duty. With futuristic controls, cutting edge communications technology, and ergonomic seats, to name a few on board tools at his fingertips, pilot and harbor patrol officer, Matthew Palmieri should be able to handle most anything that may come along.

Not to be sitting on their laurels, the County Office's SWAT Unit regularly trains in the Port at least twice a month for vessel boarding and explosive training. The up to 20 member volunteer Wet Team of the SWAT unit, (the other unit being the sniper team of about 50 members), got to evaluate and test a 28' new 'off-the-shelf' American made Zodiac 2800 boat with twin 250 HP Yamaha 4-stroke outboard engines that saves ½ the fuel used of a similar sized hard-sided boat. It was on display at the National Sheriff’s Conference exhibit hall prior to testing.

Evaluation is accomplished in real time training by the unit that will be using the tool - whether it's a boat and motor with safe inflatable collars for boarding yachts, freighters, and ships, or a highly accurate, long range radar unit for drug interdiction, constant vigilance and advancement is imperative.

When there are over 400 square miles of water to enforce, just that one marine aspect of patrol, security, and service to its community during economic constraints can be a strain on personnel. However, the boating public won't notice it under Sheriff Lamberti, who keeps a steady ship over deputies that do more with less.

"Broward County is all about water," Sheriff Al Lamberti said. "We're surrounded by water with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Everglades eco-system on the other, plus we safeguard one of the busiest cruise and cargo ports in the world. We have to have a Marine Unit that is totally capable and fully equipped. There is no other option."