A series of decisions by Gulf County officials, in the wake of a state report critical of a water rescue attempt in August that took the life of a St. George Island first responder, have prompted the resignation of the chief of the South Gulf County Volunteer Fire Department, as well as the head of the department’s water rescue unit.
Vince Bishop, chief of the South Gulf County department, which serves the Indian Pass, Cape San Blas, Jones Homestead, Money Bayou and Simmons Bayou areas, resigned March 16, the same afternoon Monte Lucas, who heads the department’s water rescue unit, helped fish from the water a 67-year-old man who had fallen off a sailboat, near Black’s Island.
Named to replace Bishop, who began as chief in June 2018, as interim chief is Mike Barrett.
Lucas, who has grown the department’s water rescue unit since he took the helm Nov. 2019, appeared at Tuesday morning’s board of county commissioners meeting. He took issue with the actions taken by Matt Herring, the newly appointed head of county emergency management.
At the heart of the matter are strict orders Herring issued last month that members of the department’s water rescue unit were not to go into the water to perform rescues, a stand-down order prompted by the drowning death of St. George Island first responder, Brian Smith, who perished August 25 while trying to save a father and son foundering in choppy surf off the island.
That line of duty death report from the state fire marshal’s office had ordered the St. George Island volunteer fire department to cease any water rescues, and to beef up training.
Following a subsequent directive by Gulf County Administrator Michael Hammond, Herring had issued a stand-down order to all fire departments not to have members extend any rescues that involve entering the water.
In addition, Herring outlined a proposal for county-sponsored training that would be forthcoming to ensure volunteer firefighters engaged in water rescue were deemed fit to do so under the auspices of the county.
Lucas said he fully supported the training plans but has bristled, publicly, about what’s been put in place in the interim, particularly on the eve of a bustling spring and summer season. And in keeping with the fact that the half-dozen or so members of the department who took part last year in 19 rescues, saved the lives of over 40 people, according to Lucas.
“Matt came in and didn’t review any of the things I did,” he told commissioners. “The issue with that is it didn’t entertain anything we’ve done. The decision was made in a vacuum.”
To understand what led to the resignations, and a tense exchange with Commissioner Phillip McCroan Tuesday morning, here is what happened on Tuesday, March 16 at about 1:52 p.m. when Bishop, who manages property, got a call from a renter who said her husband had fallen off his sailboat.
“As a property manager I can’t sit by,” said Bishop. “I told her we cannot go into the water and that she needed to call 911, and have them call FWC and the Coast Guard.”
What followed next was a page sent from the county, which Bishop said he followed up on by advising dispatch that members of his department were not permitted to do water rescue and to please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Lucas said he responded by first talking to a visitor at the store behind Scallop Cove, and learned he had to head towards Black’s Island to find the family.
“I took off for station 2 and called Vince,” he said, in a telephone call late last week. “Vince reminded me I was not allowed to go into the bay and could not use Gulf County equipment.”
Lucas secured the use of a pontoon boat owned by his friend Tyler Matney, and at the same time got a call from Deputy Sheriff Caleb Kesterson, who Irvin said had commandeered a boat, and was in the middle of the bay in the vicinity of Black’s Island.
Lucas met up with Kesterson and after boarding the center console watercraft, headed to the island, where they discovered the heavy-set man in the 60-degree water, wearing a shirt and jeans, having floated for about 40 minutes, clinging to a throw cushion that his wife and three children had thrown him.
Within about 10 minutes, they had the man up and out of the water, and wrapped him in towels to warm him up.
“He had some signs of hypothermia,” Lucas said. “He said he fell off his sailboat trying to get the engine started. The current then pushed the sailboat away from him faster than he could swim. We found them three quarters of a mile away from him. blown over to the northeast side of the bay.”
Lucas said the FWC watercraft was about a mile to their north, and headed in the incorrect direction.
That afternoon, when the fire chief received a call from Herring, Bishop said he was told “if it happens again, the county will fire Monte and possibly fire me.
“You don’t have to wait until then,” Bishop replied, “I resign.”
Bishop, who had earlier shared plans within the department to step down as chief this summer, said he complied with Herring’s directive last month, and shared it with the entire department.
“Most of the rescues are surf rescues ,where you have to go into high surf,” he said. “This happened on a rental pontoon boat. Anybody is qualified to do that.”
Bishop said that while Lucas was acting in the capacity of a Good Samaritan, same as anyone wanting to help in an emergency situation, “he did go out with red light flashing and he used the county radio.
“I said you make own decision, but do not use any county resources,” Bishop said in a telephone conversation last week.
“To stand around and watch this (a drowning) happen, you can’t do it,” he said.
He said he too welcomes the additional county training, although some requirements for advanced lifeguard certification, could require a daunting 100-yard swim, with a life jacket and pants on and a shirt, in under eight minutes. In addition, there’s an online course, and first aid and CPR training.
“We had done plenty,” said Bishop. “There is no national certification for this. Our training record and protocols are good enough to get us through training.
“We did multiple rescues a year before without incident, without putting any people in danger,” he said. “They’re concerned with a line of duty death that makes the county responsible.”
Lucas said after he learned of Bishop’s resignation, he decided to step down as well, and to speak out on Tuesday after publicly airing criticism of county officials.
“I’m a lifelong diver, I absolutely threw myself into this,” he said Tuesday, noting that water rescue procedures he has implemented has meant the department has avoided having to deploy a rescue swimmer.
“We’ve done multiple water trainings, I put systems together, I have standard operating procedures, I direct all training events,” he said.
“I did the right thing for this guy,” Lucas said. “Everybody wants the training but there was no stop gap measure (in place). There are no timelines, no official training program. One guy stood in the way of that last week.
“We’re expecting rough seas again,” said Lucas, stressing that he believes FWC will not be able to respond to emergencies anywhere near as quickly as his department has over the 54 miles of shoreline and water line they cover.
“I’m asking you to come up with something in the interim,” he told commissioners, “People make mistakes. Last week I chose to resign and save the day.”
McCroan responded to Lucas' comments in harsh tones, which he later apologized for.
“You have trashed this man (Herring) on Facebook,” he said. “You have trashed this man from one end to another. You have no qualifications to run a program.”
Hammond followed up by taking responsibility for the county’s stand-down decisions, and by defending the professionalism of Herring, the former chief of the Port St. Joe police department.
“He’s not some dingdong,” Hammond said. “The Franklin County incident caused us to review (our policies)
“More times than not the Good Samaritans are the ones that get killed,” he continued, “We got to have common sense and I want to save people too.
“I am the one that asked him to do this,” Hammond said. “I have to look out for the liability of my county. I asked him to review that. We got to follow some semblance of rules. We have liability if we send uncertified people out in the water.”
Hammond also voiced criticism for a South Gulf water rescue operation last Christmas, although there were no further details discussed on that incident at Tuesday’s deliberations.
“Matt’s over it and he’s going to come up with some good suggestions and we’re going to have some good protocols,” he said.
Herring then spoke, and said emergency operations are prepared to address any water emergencies that may occur.
“There’s a plan in place, we’re not without a plan,” he said. “Until the ball starts turning there’s a plan in place.
“I’ve spent all my life on the beaches in Florida,” Herring said, noting his early years in Daytona Beach.
Herring said the protocol has been modified from having calls directed to the South Gulf department, and then FWC and the Coast Guard.
“Now, they got to stay on the beach,” he said. “FWC had three boats in the bay. They’re there, and that’s their job. It’s not a fireman’s job.”
In his apology. McCroan said “Matt Herring is an asset to this county. It gets under my skin when someone like Matt’s attacked. He has a plan and he’s put it in place.”
Commissioner Ward McDaniel said he expects Barrett and Herring to work closely together. Chairman Sandy Quinn offered some advice to his colleague McCroan.
“You might want to stop reading Facebook,” he said.
This article originally appeared on The Star: Stand-down order snares Good Samaritan